If you do not define yourself, you will be defined by others — for their use and to your detriment.
~ a friend of mine in the S&M community
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Back in 2008, I had just started writing this blog and curating my sex-positive film series, and I met the seminal S&M writer Gayle Rubin while volunteering at the Leather Archives. I was really excited to meet her. I remember trying to explain that I thought we were at a cultural tipping point about S&M and maybe sexuality in general. She asked where my film series was hosted, and I said I was working with Jane Addams Hull-House Museum — a famous and historic feminist site — at which point Ms. Rubin choked on her coffee. (I don’t know if she remembers this the way I do; maybe she doesn’t remember meeting me at all.)
I thought I was riding a wave, and at this point, I know I was right. My film series was only supposed to go nine months, but it succeeded massively and lasted four years (the final screening will be next Tuesday!). I’ve had other professional success too (buy my book The S&M Feminist!) … but what’s more important is that my topics become more legit every day, and there are lots of other people exploring them too.
Firstly, almost nobody is trying to ignore S&M or shut down public S&M discussions anymore. Secondly, the idea that S&M should be integrated with feminism and other gender/sex subcultures is not very controversial anymore. Not only did Fifty Shades of Grey grab massive sales this year; mainstream feminist speakers actually defended S&M when the commentary rolled around, and Bitch Media ran a series on S&M. There is surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of consent tactics in the mainstream; in late 2009, I even saw an article where the author said that she associated safewords with “humorless third wave feminists.” If I had been drinking coffee, I would have choked on it. Safewords? Humorless feminists? Wow.
The early battles with S&M focused on getting good information out into the world — information about health, safety, best practices, and so on. (You can see my resources list here.) Later battles focused on fighting negative stereotypes about S&M — and people like me focused on feminism. (An example from 2009: my post Evidence That The BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.) These are still important topics, but I think those of us who write and speak publicly about these matters should start thinking concretely about future messages.
A few years ago, Alan from Polyamory In The News posted his thoughts about this topic for polyamorous people. I’ll adapt his first four points to S&M, because they’re both basic and important:
A. Keep stressing that successful S&M requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;
B. Emphasize that S&M is not for everyone, and that many people will have a better time avoiding S&M;
C. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the “full knowledge and consent of all involved”;
D. Expand that to not just “knowledge and consent,” but well-wishing and good intention for all involved.
So, yeah, definitely those. I’ve written about those. A lot. And my own pace of production has already slowed down, because I’ve figured out a lot of the basic stuff for myself, and because I’ve got a lot going on in other spheres.
But even so, I remain committed to serious thinking about this topic. I do have further ideas about the future, and maybe I’m totally out of this world, but I think these are worth thinking about:
1. Intelligent frameworks that show how S&M theory is relevant to other topics. And I don’t just mean the usual suspects. Those of us who know a lot about S&M and feminism already know that tons of recent “groundbreaking” work among anti-rape educators actually originated in the S&M community. That’s important, and I certainly believe that S&M practice can offer crucial insights into discussions about abuse. But we can think more broadly, and we can even break out of gender discourse altogether. This, for example, was one goal of my introduction for Violation: Rape In Gaming — to situate S&M as something that can give us insights about other types of play.
Of course, I don’t think we should talk about all-S&M-all-the-time. That gets boring for everyone. So let’s be smart about this. But when S&M is genuinely relevant, there’s nothing wrong with showing its relevance.
2. Public emphasis on the S&M community that includes public sponsorship, outreach, etc. An ex-boyfriend of mine used to joke that he wanted to see us sponsoring Little League teams. Right now, S&M groups tend to have very little money, and when they have money, they tend to keep it in the S&M community by supporting other S&M projects. That’s cool, but can we do more? Can we make ourselves more publicly available, and make positive contributions to our larger communities?
The S&M social networking site FetLife supports two great S&M organizations, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and the Leather Archives. But what if they took up a holiday season charity collection for at-risk youth or something like that? That would be awesome.
As a side note, this may include more people coming out of the closet. And oh yes, I know how complicated that is.
3. More precise legal and pictorial standards. What, exactly, should happen if an S&M rape case goes to court? How, exactly, can we differentiate between photos of S&M and photos of abuse? This will be extremely difficult, and the S&M community won’t have central agreement on it, but if we don’t start thinking precisely about this then it will be imposed on us from outside. (To some extent, it is already being imposed on us from outside, because S&Mers don’t usually trust the established court system to handle our business.)
The current “answer” (such as it is) has involved a lot of ideas about intentions and personal ethics. To be sure, some really awesome and careful work has been done on those questions, like Thomas MacAulay Millar’s series about abuse in the community, and obviously I’ve written about it lots. There has also been some work done by porn companies, as for instance with the post-scene processing videos that are packaged with some S&M porn. Is it possible for us to give more precise standards for measuring this stuff? I actually don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about.
At the very least, we should know how to explain the difficulties with legal and pictorial issues, clearly and concisely. I kind of tried to warn about this in my science-fiction story “Victory“; I don’t know how successful I was.
4. Speak publicly about the messy stuff. That includes the work about abuse in the community, and also essays like my recent piece I Can Be A Kinky Feminist And A Messy Human Being. It also includes the very edgy stuff, like Mollena Williams’s courageous work on playing with race. By “messy,” I’m not saying we should write without caution or control or compassion. But for a lot of people, S&M can get to some pretty dark places and can sometimes be harmful, and we should acknowledge that.
Can we talk about this without doing gross trauma-porn? Without putting ourselves on display for exploitation? While keeping faith and keeping the other truths of S&M — the beauties and benefits — front-and-center? If so, then let’s.
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