Family Ties Keynote Address
I’ve been in the scene for quite a while. One of my standing jokes is my first set of nipple clips was made from live trilobites, but in truth, did my first scene in 1964. It’s hard for people now to remember what it was like back then. There was no Internet; even its daddy, Arpnet, was only a gleam in the eyes of a few geeks. There were no nonfiction books on how to do this stuff. The first gay how-to, The Leatherman’s Handbook over half a decade away; the first lesbian one, The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual, a quarter century, and the first one basically for heterosexuals, Jay Wiseman’s SM101 would not appear until after 1990. The serious psychological works had taken their cue from Kraft Ebbing’s Psychopathica Sexualis and roundly predicted that anyone who did this sort of stuff was bound, in a few years, to be stuffing dead bodies into trunks and writing missives with human blood. This, I probably don’t need to be telling you, that wasn’t good for my peace of mind.
It didn’t help that this was before the days of open stacks in academic libraries. The procedure in those days was for a student to submit a slip with the call numbers of books he wanted to read. Not only was there more than a bit of paranoia in telling the powers that be you wanted to read about violent perversion, but those books were on a “closed list” and you had to have permission from a psych professor even to look at them. Fortunately, this was also before the days of burglar alarms in college libraries. It’s amazing how much more credible pure bullshit sounds when you are reading it by the light of a penlight clutched in your teeth.
There were no support groups. There weren’t really any groups at all. Oh, there were whispers about a New York/Long Island club of rich men and beautiful women, which we now know was run by Charles Guyette and is probably the model for all the “secret European societies” about which bullshiters love to talk about on the net. But a group like this was hardly accessible to “real people.” For that, we had to wait for Eulenspiegel to appear in 1970, but, even then, unless you lived in or near Manhattan, you were out of luck. I didn’t live in Manhattan or even within 200 miles of the city. Even if I had heard about it, Eulenspiegel might as well be on the Moon.
The lack of groups and direct contact led to what psychologists call pluralistic ignorance. It is the feeling that ones needs and feelings are unique, unshared. That one is isolated and alone. This in turn creates a feeling akin to guilt, as if one is a freak, different, unworthy of society. A simple model is a dictatorship with an active secret police. Even if every member of the society including the members of the secret police want to overthrow the dictator, if they can be prevented from expressing those thoughts, they are left feeling that they are the only ones holding them. This makes action effectively impossible. Look at how quickly the Soviet Empire vanished once people began to express their disproval. If anything, the mechanism is more powerful in sexual matters.
Still, I was luckier than most. My first partners were a lesbian couple who needed a top. The switch half of the couple wanted a chance to bottom while the bottom was understandably jealous of other women. As a male, I wasn’t seen as a threat. Believe me, being the “insignificant other” in such a relationship is a sure cure for Top’s Disease. Because of my relationship with them, they occasionally took me to a leather bar in Providence, Rhode Island. At that time, lesbian women were welcome at gay bars because their presence provided the regulars with a “beard” should the police arrive. “Hell, officer, we ain’t queer. Look ‘et the broads.”
This was my first exposure to what has become known as The Old Guard. Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t part of their scene. I wasn’t even particularly welcome. The situation was like a not particularly beloved relative coming to visit with her pet poodle. “As long as he stays off the sofa and doesn’t piddle on the floor, he can stay” sort of thing. But I did get to see the interaction and some of the play, a good bit of which we brought into our own relationship. Hell, I hadn’t even seen a flogger before then. But knowing there were others doing consensually what I wanted to do helped a lot.
Later, I heard about and made a few trips to Hellfire in New York. These were both exhilarating and frustrating. It was wonderful to see hetero people playing and know I wasn’t alone in a global sense, but it was also frustrating to know that but to return to relative isolation, where my play partners were ostensibly vanilla women whom I seduced into kink. There was also a lot of guilt, wondering if I hadn’t awakened appetites that they wouldn’t be able to satisfy once the relationship had run its course.
Much later in the mid-80s, I joined Threshold after encountering the group at The Lifestyles Convention in Las Vegas. Then, I got a job in New York and was able to attend Eulenspiegel events, soon I was lecturing there. Much of the beginnings of The Loving Dominant comes from my lecture notes.
Then, the best thing in my life happened. I got an email through Prodigy saying only, “I think we share some things in common.” That was how I met Libby, my wife, my partner, my best friend, the center of my life.
And this provides a segue into the online world. My first contact with online BDSM was in 1978, at, what was then, a relatively limited network run by Compuserve. Part of their offerings was what they called The CB Simulator. In effect, it was the first group of chat rooms, real-time interaction. Channel 13 had been taken over by the BDSM crowd. It was tentative; everyone was still learning; for many, this was their only exposure to BDSM, but it was another crack in the shell of pluralistic ignorance.
Later there was the discovery of Usenet and the newsgroup alt.sex.bondage. However, the sense of liberation wasn’t total. There were still powerful forces trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. For example, Prodigy, where Libby and I met, explicitly forbad any discussion of BDSM on their bulletin boards (remember, that back then real-time communication was rare and most communication was made up of messages left and read on bulletin board systems). We, the Prodigy forces for kink, got around this by posting in the literature section and making it seem that our messages were about Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series. The powers that be might have been squicked by any hint that people actually did this, but they were content with our discussing books by a noted author.
It was largely in reaction to this that when Libby and I finally got together one of the first things we did was to obtain a computer bulletin board and dedicate it to open and unlimited communications between people interested in BDSM.
Now, looking back, it would seem like we are riding the crest of a wave leading to acceptance for BDSM. More mention of it in the media, often without the pro forma snickering that used to characterize any “whips and chains” comment, more clubs, more access via the Internet, more relaxed social rules in general. That would be wonderful, but I’m not so sanguine. It’s human nature to look at a curve on a chart and mentally extrapolate it along the same line. However, if this were true in real life, miniskirts would have turned into belts, dotcommers would now be billionaires and The Four Seasons would be serving cocaine and marijuana along with Chevas and Chateau Roschild ’97.
Society tends to be cyclical or at least a spiral rather than linear. We can already feel the forces of repression gathering in the not too far distance. The Christian Women of America, finding gays a tough target these days, have redirected their aim at us and are gleefully bouncing around the states trying to lock us out of convention halls and hotels. We have an attorney-general who feels that sex is something for missionary position, in the bed room, with the lights out. Police in some states are under legal duress to ignore any protestations of consensuality when investigating “bedroom abuse.”
Let us not forget that neither side of the political spectrum loves us. The liberals hate us because we beat people and the conservatives hate us because the people we beat get off on it.
I’ve heard often that “what we need is a Stonewall,” but let’s take a look at why the riot resulting from the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969 succeeded. It wasn’t that the cops were getting the crap beat out of them. It was because they were getting the crap beat out of them by handbag-swinging crossdressers. It was the incongruity of the image that excited the popular imagination and gave it the kind of news coverage that was able to electrify gays who were still in the closet. Recut the scene, deleting the pastels and poodle skirts and replacing them with leather vests and floggers, and you’ll have Bush sending in the FA18s with cluster bombs and the public giving a bored shrug. We can learn from the past but we can’t duplicate it.
One of the popular images of the political debate is polar opposites yelling at each other. This makes good theater, good television. Blood on the carpet and all that, but it doesn’t win battles. We not only don’t need to confront our enemies, we shouldn’t. The radical feminist who sees us as an archetype of masculine hegemony, the CWA member opposed to any kind of sex that differs from hers, all of the people who rail against what we do are are not the one we want to be talking with. First, it can’t go any good. If Jesus came down in a golden chariot and told them we were all right, they’d probably turn Buddhist rather than change their opinion, and even more importantly, if wrestle with pigs, you get dirty, not to mention that pig has much too much fun. Fighting with them creates a kind of intellectual parity in the minds of bystanders; that, frankly, doesn’t do us any good.
We don’t need to engage those on the far side of the curve from us. It’s a no-win situation. Our targets should be those just over the hill. Those who find us mildly distasteful or a little frightening. They are a lot more likely to listen, and once they listen, to come over to our side.
What can you do? Quite a lot actually. Want to be closeted? I can appreciate that feeling. I used to be a college professor. Academia has loosened up a lot in the past few decades. A lot of “personal idiosyncrasies” are tolerated, but fer god’s sake, I beat women with a whip. On the scale of political incorrectness, I’m right up with the guy sporting a toothbrush mustache and a fondness for beer halls. The tenure and promotion committee wouldn’t even have had to meet. A few phone calls and I’d been looking for another position. I know what it means to check the closet door a few times a day to make sure it’s still locked. But ever since the Phoenicians invented money, there’s been a way to quietly show your support. Aside from Black Rose which is the Bill Gates of the kink movement, I don’t know of any BDSM organization that isn’t chronically short of funds. If your lips can’t do the talking for you, let your check book do the talking. For example, NCSF and LLC are doing magnificent work in the legal, political and outreach areas. Give them a hand and you’ll be helping yourself in the long run.
Not quite ready to hoist a banner at a sexual freedom march? That doesn’t mean you have to remain silent when someone seems to be looking for information or making a bigoted remark. Now, you don’t have to wave your arms and proclaim “but I LIKE to do that.” Let’s take the common remark, “Why would anyone like to do that?” Bear in mind “that” is probably a loaded term for the speaker so a direct response is probably not the best approach. My usually procedure is to put on a puzzled look and say, “Tastes often puzzle me. After all, my friend Jim likes anchovies on his pizza.” Then, lift your eyes and look the guy who made the remark. “Can you explain why anyone would like anchovies on a pizza?” This is particularly effective if you know the speaker is one of those vile perverts who likes to mix fish with cheese, but it works in any case. Also, notice that we’ve moved the discussion away from sex, an area that in the best of times in an emotional minefield for a lot of people.
The same approach can be used with someone who expresses a more direct dislike. If you brace them directly, you’ll just create a confrontation. What’s called for is a little mental judo. Agree in principle with “that” bothering them, but then add, “Yup, a lot of things bother me, but that’s freedom. If I get to shut up everyone I don’t agree with, I suppose someone is going to come along and shut me up.” Give a sad shake of the head and add, “Well I guess if a free society were easy, everyone would be doing it.” You don’t have to out yourself, but you can shake up their thinking.