2009 10 Mar

Interview with Daniel Bergner, author of “The Other Side of Desire”

I was all set to dislike Daniel Bergner. As a member of the BDSM community and an advocate for greater societal acceptance of BDSM, I was unimpressed by the reviews of his new book, The Other Side of Desire. I get annoyed when I see media depictions that play into BDSM stereotypes or create other problems for the BDSM community image; it seemed to me that Bergner had written a book that did just that. At best, it sounded naïve — at worst, cynical and insensitive. I requested an interview with him, wondering whether we’d end up at each other’s throats … and then I read the book.

The Other Side of Desire is far more complex than I initially gave it credit for. There’s too much silence around alternative sexuality, and it breaks that silence — not by promoting an agenda, but with a plea for personal understanding. I found myself believing that Daniel Bergner really had done his best — not to put us deviants on display like animals in a zoo, but to give profiles of human beings thinking about human concerns. Still, there were gaps in the book that I found very troubling, and I wanted to see if he could defend them.

I arranged to meet Daniel at the Leather Archives and Museum, a museum devoted to leather / fetish / BDSM on Chicago’s north side. There, I found him looking over the Archives’ BDSM history timeline. As he greeted me, I was impressed by his measured speech and unexpectedly dark eyes. There was an openness to him — even, perhaps, a vulnerability — that didn’t come across in photographs. I could see how he’d gotten so many people to open up about their sexuality, and I warmed to him instantly.

The most obvious question to start with was what fetishes Daniel has, personally. But he’d already told other interviewers that he’s totally vanilla …

* * *

Daniel Bergner: (laughs) Did I say totally vanilla? I think I’ve — I think vanilla-ish, let’s go with that.

Clarisse Thorn: There was a part of your book’s Introduction that made some kinky readers wince a little bit. It’s at the beginning, where you compare your coverage of sexual fetishists to your previous journalistic experiences … one experience was interviewing convicted prisoners on death row, and another was covering war in Sierra Leone. Do you think it’s problematic that you compared alternative sexuality to a war zone in a foreign country?

DB: Now, I think that comparison was misunderstood. I do not see the erotically unusual as comparable to criminality or to utterly damaging violence, like in a war zone. What I was trying to say was that in each of those previous books I’ve gone to a very extreme place in order to learn about things that are universal.

Here, with sexuality — again, not comparing criminality to alternative sexuality — but I was comparing journeys of looking at lives that might fall outside “the norm”, and I’m putting quotes around “norm” because I think that whole concept of normal is suspect. Looking at lives lived outside the typical boundaries might help me, might help readers understand more about the lives we live sexually, how we come to be who we are sexually, and what we do with our sexuality.

CT: I’m interested to know what you knew about alternative sexuality before you started this book. What did you think of alternative sexuality? What stereotypes did you have? In particular, what kind of experience did you have with BDSM?

DB: I think I’ve come to all the writing I’ve done with a very open mind. Some people would say “too open”. It’s not just that I hesitate to judge. I think I’m missing the judgmental gene somehow.

I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now. I had no, or little, direct contact. It was new.

CT: You wrote on the blog for Powell’s Bookstore that you met fetishists for your book through “friends, therapists, and the Internet”. Can you shed some more light on that?

DB: I met the sadist I profiled — The Baroness — through a writer friend who very much admired The Baroness. Others I met through therapists who knew my writing and trusted me to be careful in my perspective. Ron, who’s the central figure in the last story —

CT: The amputee fetishist.

DB: — the amputee devotee, yes — I met him very indirectly through the Internet; I was having conversations with people in that community.

CT: In a comment on the blog “Sex in the Public Square” you said that you are “not, primarily, an advocate.” In other words, you didn’t see yourself as writing this book in order to advocate for alternative sexuality. Making alternative sexuality more acceptable was not a major goal for you. Is that right?

DB: I rely on and am indebted to advocates, because those who advocate for — in this case, sexual freedom, in other cases, for a more humanistic vision of convicts or what it means to live in a West African village — that kind of advocacy allows for what I do. I couldn’t do what I do without it, because it causes people to be open-minded and take an interest. What I do is try to tell complex stories about complex human beings in a way that makes us feel our humanity intensely, and deepens our humanity.

I think it’s very hard to create politically driven art. There are some examples of it that succeed, but I think often, people have to make a choice. I think it’s really difficult to do both.

CT: I guess those of us who are more concerned with advocacy just thought that it seems strange, even heartless, to write a book like this without making advocacy a goal. You must know that there’s a battle on — there are people out there, like the nonprofit National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, who are working really hard towards alternative sexuality acceptance.

So on the one side we have the NCSF. And then there are people on the other side who do nothing but tell us kinksters that we are sinful, or sick, or deluded, or otherwise screwed up. Anti-BDSM activists are not always religious evangelicals, either. They can come from surprisingly liberal circles. For instance — I identify strongly as a feminist, and there are lots of feminists out there who think that practicing BDSM and feminism are not irreconcilable — but there are also anti-BDSM feminists. Just recently I encountered a popular radical feminist blogger who outright stated that sadists should either repress their sadistic desires, or kill themselves.

We deal with this hostile environment all the time, and it’s hard for us to relate to someone who would write a book like yours and then say that he’s outside the conflict. Here’s an example that might illuminate what I’m saying. Suppose a foreigner came to the U.S. and wrote a book about four soldiers on the front in the Iraq War. And suppose his book was a huge hit in his country. Suppose that for lots of people in that foreigner’s home country, his book is the only exposure they have to the lives of Iraq War soldiers — that’s all they ever read about those stories. And then suppose that author said, afterwards, “I just wanted to write a book about these particular four soldiers, and their lives as soldiers. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about the Iraq War, and I didn’t mean to shape people’s perceptions of what being a soldier is like in general.”

What would you say to that author?

DB: That’s a great example, and it makes me feel bad.

CT: (laughs) Sorry!

DB: That’s fine; it’s your job to complicate things and ask difficult questions.

I have certainly read about the legal thinking that surrounds BDSM. Still — I hope this will not sound like too rarefied and irrelevant a thought — I have always been protective of the impulse to tell stories, to render people within nonfiction or journalism. So there’s a part of me that says: Wait. We don’t want all nonfiction, all journalism to become advocacy, because we’d lose something — we’d lose a depth of human investigation. We’d lose a depth that language itself can bring us. We’d lose a level of emotional resonance.

With the prison book, of course that book was in part an effort to have people see human beings that our society has rendered completely invisible, and to have our society see them as human beings. I think a lot of readers did in fact react that way. So when I would speak to groups about that, on the one hand I was protective and I said that I was telling stories about particular people, but that didn’t mean that underneath wasn’t an impulse to make people see in a way that starts to change their minds. Understand on an emotional level that makes them reconsider on an intellectual level.

You’re right: it would be ridiculously callous for me to say, “I just wanted to tell some stories, great, I’m done, goodbye.” Of course that’s not true. Of course I’m concerned with the boundaries that are placed on the erotic, and I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t feel that. That was an original impulse behind this book — feeling those boundaries in all kinds of forms, and questioning them. The entire book, in a way, is an attempt to chisel away at those constraints.

Let’s circle back to your radical feminist voice, who wrote that all sadists should either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. There’s an example of politics run amok. That writer is so engaged with her own political viewpoint — from her perspective, she probably sees BDSM as a threat to a feminist sense of independence. But by applying those politics to the realm of eros so extremely, she renders herself absurd. So there, again, I think your point sort of — if not proves mine, at least bolsters it a little bit. Eros is such a complex place, such a place for individual exploration. I almost want to clear politics out of it altogether. It’s difficult enough for us to be us as human beings when it comes to the erotic, without politics getting in there … once politics gets in there, I worry that we’re going to distort things even more.

In any case, I certainly get your point, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I don’t care about sexual freedom. I hope there is an undercurrent of tacit advocacy that runs throughout my book.