I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago. I drafted it right after KinkForAll Denver, in the midst of a heated argument about ethics that was going on between several people who had (un)organized and/or participated in the event. And then I never posted it. Partly because I didn’t have time to edit it before life got in the way – and partly because I got cold feet. I share things here about my personal psychosexual experience that I’ve never been brave enough to say aloud before and, at the same time, I make some pretty contentious political points and explicitly ally myself with someone who a lot of people distrust. Doing both of these things simultaneously on the Internet puts me in a pretty vulnerable position.
I thought maybe I just wouldn’t post it. “It felt important to speak my truth when I wrote it, but I don’t want to stir up any more trouble,” I told myself. “That was exhausting and I just want to be done with it. I’m sick of being attacked.” But today, I had coffee with someone who had been at KFADEN. She’s someone I met only briefly at the event and who I’d never had a conversation with until today. She was at KFADEN for only a short time and participated quietly; I never would have noticed her if a mutual friend hadn’t suggested we get in touch. I’m really glad we did.
But our conversation also reminded me that I’m not the only person trying to navigate the emotional tangles of being an abuse survivor with a BDSM-oriented sexuality and living in an oppression culture. Hearing the personal stories of others who share this experience has helped me so much to feel like I’m not alone, like I’m not fundamentally fucked up or broken beyond repair. And, at the same time, there are lots of people like me who aren’t in a place to be able to share their stories – publicly or otherwise. I can’t know what’s going on for them. I do know that, if I share mine, that makes more space for others to breathe. I feel a responsibility to be as out as it’s safe for me to be. Not just for other people. For me. So I don’t feel like this story lives only in my head. So I don’t feel like I’m hiding it, and hiding inside it, all the time.
But that’s scary. Posting this is scary. I’m afraid that people I love are going to read it and be grossed out or turned off or tell me I’m crazy – or worse, that they’ll feel hurt or judged, or guilty about hurting me. And I’m afraid that people who have a political agenda that involves shaming me or my allies are going to use my vulnerabilities as ammo for another attack. I might be able to pre-empt the second one by stripping the post of a lot of its political content, but then it wouldn’t actually be my truth – because my emotional experience is always-and-already in conversation with my awareness of myself as a political being, and that matters; and I think it’s true for almost everybody who’s in a similar position. It wouldn’t make sense out of context. And putting it in context makes me a target.
But I have to post it anyway. For the invisible girl in the corner. Because the invisible girl in the corner is me.
(It’s also about five pages long, so I’ll put it behind a cut:)
BDSM: Why it’s important to the Revolution and how we’re doing it wrong
Last week, I received an e-mail from a journalist covering the drama surrounding KinkForAll Denver. I won’t describe her efforts as “covering KinkForAll Denver”, because she didn’t. Instead she covered a personality conflict between one of KinkForAll’s founders and an influential member in one subsection of the local BDSM scene, a conflict that I have very little to say about.
One of the questions in this e-mail interview was:
“Do you have a personal issue with the BDSM community?”
I declined to answer this and most of her other questions because, as I told her, “I have no comment on […] the local BDSM scene’s internal politics.” Furthermore, although I didn’t go into this in the e-mail, my personal relationship with BDSM is irrelevant to my role in planning KinkForAll Denver – because my personal relationship to BDSM is PERSONAL.
That being said, this is my personal blog. I’m taking a large step back from any further involvement with KFADEN right now. And, as a private citizen and because it matters to people I care about, I’m going to tell you what I think of BDSM. Some of what I say below might be upsetting or make people feel uncomfortable, might even make people dislike or distrust me. That’s okay. I’m trying to learn that it’s okay for me not to make everyone happy all the time. So, here’s what I think:
I think BDSM is awesome.
I also think we’re doing it wrong.
One thing I heard over and over in the rhetoric around KFADEN was that “nobody should ever be made to feel bad about what turns them on.” This idea is codified in the BDSM slogan: “Your Kink is Not My Kink, But Your Kink is OK”. YKINMKBYKIOK is an idea that, to my understanding, came about in order to encourage people not to judge and police each others’ behavior; it’s intention is to empower diversity. But tools of resistance can also be re-purposed as tools of oppression – and, in this case, the application of YKINMKBYKIOK as a sort of oversimplified polyanna-ish, “If it feels good, do it!” attitude can be incredibly destructive to survivors of abuse. Which, in a structurally abusive oppression culture like ours, means everyone.
I, too, believe that nobody should be made to feel bad about what turns them on. I don’t think anyone should ever be made to do anything, ever. But I think it’s important to pay attention to the impact of the way we talk to each other, even when the intent is sound.
Let me tell you a story: I’ve been masturbating since before I can remember. This is pretty normal. I’ve almost never had an orgasm that wasn’t caused by masturbation. (I’ve had one.) This, sadly, is also pretty normal. I can’t remember the first time I had an orgasm. I also can’t remember a time when having orgasms, for me, wasn’t tied to a process of self-destructive psychological abuse in which I would hypnotically force myself to re-imaginine and re-live variations on violent, traumatizing feelings from my childhood until I came — and then lie in bed afterwards feeling blurry, dissociated, scared, unable to focus, intellectually muted and emotionally numbed. I’ve hated coming for most of my life. And I still forced myself to do it compulsively, similar to the way I used to cut myself compulsively, knowing that I was going to regret it for the rest of the day. And, because our culture universally frames orgasms as the epitome of sexual pleasure, I told myself that it was no big deal and that this must just be what “good” feels like. And, when I could bring myself to talk about it at all, I told my partners that, too.
Over the years, these masturbatory fantasies evolved and deepened, spawning into a fetishization not only of my own abuse, but into wide-spread psychological brutality as a whole. I found infinite creative ways to imagine oppression culture as even more drastically oppressive than it already is. Whole societies, for example, in which jovial heterosexual white men systematically transformed “perfectly” proportioned pretty white women into objects who existed only to be raped, abused, humiliated, mutilated, or literally consumed — and brainwashed into believing they liked it.
More marginalized people — like, y’know, queer people — or any other actual complex human beings and their experiences didn’t even exist in my hypnotic self-destructive fantasy land. Anything or anyone I might actually be turned on by in my “waking” life was completely erased. Not that I didn’t ever have fun, healthy, erotic fantasies that felt good to me. I still do. Lots! They just rarely ever lead to orgasm. The only images that would actually get me off were ones that triggered feelings of depression, fear, hating myself. Psychologically torturing myself in private was the only way to come. And, eventually, I learned to psychologically torture myself in bed with partners too, because otherwise they — especially male partners — felt so sad that they hadn’t “satisfied” me. You can imagine the kind of scar-tissue this built up for me around sex.
For years, I tried to talk to people about what was going on. “Don’t be ashamed of it!” my well-meaning sex-positive, queer, feminist, kinky friends reassured me. “Lots of people have fantasies of power and control. It’s okay to be turned on by whatever you’re turned on by.”
“I’m not ASHAMED“, I wanted to scream (although, of course, I was that too), “I just HATE it! I HATE THE WAY IT FEELS!” But I didn’t know how to say that, or even think it, because I’d been told my whole life that if I was having orgasms that must categorically mean I was enjoying myself.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I came across the concept of “psychosexual self-harm” – a way that survivors of child abuse sometimes use masturbation as a form of self-injury. Something clicked. I was at once both relieved and scared, since I had only — at that point — just barely started to understand my childhood as “abusive”, a word I was still afraid to use.
I sent this e-mail to my one of the people who I was seeing and not having much sex with at the time:
Subj: Psychosexual Self-Harm
Re: The conversation we were having the other night about my warped psychology around orgasms, I just found myself reading a couple of blog posts about how adult survivors of child abuse sometimes use masturbation itself, or certain kinds of masturbation, as a form of self-injury. I am, um, weirdly both relieved and kind of freaking out a little bit right now. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you this; I guess maybe just because I felt like I needed to tell somebody and you are actually probably the person I have talked the most openly about this shit with in my whole life. So, um, yeah. I’m okay. Just needed to reach out for a sec. Thanks for listening. ❤
So. BDSM. Knowledge about BDSM has been a double-edged sword in my life. On the one hand, knowing that fantasies about violence and abuse are normal helped me survive my fantasies without believing they meant I was a terrible person of some kind. YKINMKBYKIOK did help me to not feel ashamed. And that really matters.
On the other hand, being taught that fantasies about violence and abuse are just as uncomplicated and innocuous as fantasies about, say, whipped cream or Zac Efron was incredibly destructive for me personally – because, while the fact that I was having these fantasies didn’t mean there was something wrong with me, the WAY that I was having them was a sign of something that was wrong. A sign that I ignored for years and years, because everybody kept insisting through my tears and panic attacks that “my kink was okay”. If I was struggling with it, that just meant I had hang-ups I needed to let go of.
I know they genuinely meant well but — combined with sex-positive BDSM Scene rhetoric about how everything we’re doing is totally innocuous and uncomplicated — the message I took away was that even if my kinks were rooted in trauma, I should just get over it and get used to being traumatized. Otherwise, I’d be shitting all over everybody else’s good time; and that wouldn’t be very nice.
And I believed that. I internalized it. Deep. After all, if my kinks were complicated and problematic for me, that meant other peoples’ kinks might be complicated and problematic for them too – and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel bad about what turned them on!
I’m in no way claiming that my experience is the experience of everybody who fantasizes about violence. (Although, honestly, that is the hard radical upshot of my above comment about everyone in oppression culture being a victim of systemic abuse.) I’m just saying that the YKINMKBYKIOK party-line rhetoric of BDSM-oriented sex-positive culture allowed no possibility for my experience to exist. Much like sex-positive scene spaces, sex-positive discourse had no space in it for survivors.
So, I just kept doing what I was doing to my mind and body, believing that any negative feelings I had must just be an artifact of my prudish “hang-ups”. I told myself it was no big deal. I told my lovers it was no big deal. And every time I tortured myself in order to come, I carved that self-destructive path to orgasm deeper and deeper into my brain. I’ve tried to do some work and some healing around this over the past couple of years. In fits and starts, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my own and with a couple of wonderful, patient, understanding people who love me. But by now the groove is so deep, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to really pull out and start a new one, one in which orgasms are something positive and healthy that I can share as a gift with the people I love. That’s one of the things I grieve the most.
And that’s my story.
But the reason I’m telling you this very personal story isn’t just because I want to stop hiding my pain. It’s because I want to talk about why BDSM is important. Because, while exposure to BDSM was partially a cause of the problem I described above, it was also a key to unlocking it.
BDSM-consciousness (which I developed, and perhaps was only able to develop, by being constantly on the periphery of the BDSM Scene without ever really getting involved with it) taught me that it was okay not only to have violent fantasies, but also to play with them. That it was okay to push around the edges, to explore new territory, to try on different roles and costumes (even if only inside my own mind), to use my own erotic response as a laboratory for iterative intellectual, political, and personal thought experiments, to swap out variables and look for constants — to search for the core: my subconsciously buried experiences of actual abuse and non-consensual violence, sexual and otherwise.
In other words: Oppression culture programmed me to eroticize violence. (Ambiently and through its manifestation as specific incidents of abuse and violence in my life.) BDSM (the activity, not the community) taught me how to understand that programming, made me consciously aware of which scripts are running in my head.
And, once I could see those landmines more clearly, it was easier for me to avoid constantly re-triggering them. Although, currently, I’ve mostly been doing that by simply not having orgasms, at all, ever. But I’m hoping that, if I keep doing the same kind of work I have been doing — and maybe, even though it’s totally scary, include my partners in collaborating on that work with me — eventually that will change.
So, what does this mean about BDSM outside the bounds of my own bedroom? Because, if the answer is “nothing”, then there’s no reason for me to talk about it in public.
I said before that I think BDSM is awesome. What’s awesome about BDSM — and by awesome I mean genuinely awe-inspiring, breath-taking, powerful — is that BDSM is the fetishization of oppression culture. It’s the explicit eroticization of violence. (As opposed to the implicit eroticization of violence that pervades our entire culture.)
Why is that awesome? Well, let’s look at what it means to fetishize something:
According to The Free Dictionary, to fetishize is “to be excessively or irrationally devoted to” something. When we devote ourselves irrationally and excessively to something, we decontextualize it. Decontextualization strips something of its support structures and makes it easy to manipulate. By erotically glorifying violence, we also trivialize it. We take it away from its massive structural foundation and imbue it with a devotional excess of ourselves. We reduce it to a skeleton of itself. We weaken it.
BDSM takes every kind of sociocultural deprivation and interpersonal destruction you can imagine, and plenty that you can’t, and turns them into “play”. By transmuting violence into intimacy, BDSM can weaken oppression culture. But only if it’s done with that intention. Otherwise, it’s especially good at re-inscribing oppression culture. BDSM play is big deal technomagic. It is scary. It can hurt you — actually hurt you — and the people you love.
Here’s the thing. Mainstream culture thinks BDSM is all about whips and paddles. Personally, I’ve never been particularly interested in all the techno-toys that keep BDSM the province of a financially-resourced middle-class. They strike me (no stupid pun intended), for the most part, as useful to people who are connoisseurs of physical sensation. That’s a legitimate thing to be a connoisseur of; in fact, it sounds really nice. But it’s something that has never meant much to me. For a number of reasons, I’m incredibly disconnected from my body most of the time. To me, one physical feeling — be it pain, pleasure, heat, cold, pressure, whatever — is very much like another. They’re sort of interesting, but they’re significant to me only insofar as they’re a means to an end — in sex, as a means to the end of emotional intimacy or psychological self-discovery of some kind.
What BDSM — as an activity; not as a Scene, culture, community or any other institution — is best at is being a means to the end of political consciousness, a laboratory for working with our own somatic relationships to oppression culture. It’s also a huge privilege that the ways I’ve been wounded by oppression culture are shallow enough that it’s safe for me to explore them like this. (“Slavery,” for example, is a drastically less loaded and triggering concept for me than it might be for someone whose family members were actually slaves.)
Here’s the part that I expect to upset people most, and I don’t even know for sure that it’s true, but it’s at least an idea worth exploring: If I play with oppression in my sex, if I consciously learn what it feels like in my body, then it becomes easier for me to see and feel oppression working surreptitiously in the world. If I fetishize authority, actual authorities become less intimidating. (Huh. No wonder that one of the most submissively-identified people I know is also one of the most hardcore anti-authoritarians I’ve ever met.) If I empower myself to choose non-consent, the possibility of actual rape — which is something that has happened to me and very well might happen to me again because that’s the world that we live in — becomes a less powerful epistemic threat. BDSM helps us learn how to distinguish between discomfort and danger.
That is, unless we pretend that’s not what’s happening. Unless we pretend that, when we engage in BDSM play, we’re not hurting each other.
Either we acknowledge that, when we fetishize oppression culture, we’re actually doing something pretty fucked up as a way to resist/survive/understand something even more fucked up that’s being done to us against our will — and we choose to do that INTENTIONALLY and WORK with it — or we lose all the revolutionary value that BDSM might otherwise give us to hack our own subconscious programming in ways that help us fight the System’s hold over us. Then it becomes just another fun thing to do on a Saturday night in the kyriarchy. “Fun”, as long as we keep our eyes squeezed shut tight and avoid ever actually seeing each others’ pain.
What’s interesting to me about BDSM — what makes BDSM awesome — isn’t how much physical pain I can cause or take. I’m interested in inegalitarian intimacies, and any physical sensations that might facilitate them, as a politicopsychological technology for fighting systemic oppression.
“A politicopsychological technology for fighting systemic oppression,” huh? I’m sure that sounds dry as fuck (that one was intended) to anyone for whom BDSM is about orgasms. And I’m gonna say something here that’s not very “revolutionary”: That’s fine. People have different priorities. It’s okay to be a fan of problematic things — like violent sex — and it’s even okay to be a fan of them without having a critical consciousness about how they’re problematic. That might be what you need to do to be okay. You know more about your own life than I do.
But what I know about my life that, if BDSM doesn’t feel inherently complicated or violent to you, we won’t play well together. And, more generally speaking, people like me and people like you probably shouldn’t ever play together. Because, for you, sex with me is going to feel like work; and, for me, sex with you is going to feel like war.
I said at the beginning of this post that I’m stepping back from KFADEN. I’m doing this for my own mental health and not because I don’t believe in the work. There’s some funding left over, about $200, that’s earmarked for KFADEN2 and I’ve been trying to decide who to hand it off to. Since KinkForAll is an idea rather than an organization, that means there’s no way for it to have an “official” legal presence like a bank account. Funding has to be held onto by a trustworthy and transparent individual who’s invested in making KFADEN2 happen.
In the wake of all the contentious politics following KFADEN, I’ve thought a lot about who that individual should be. Who would be the most diplomatic choice? Who would be the best influence on KFADEN2? Should my goal be to appease the community? Even with this one small action, I have a lot of power here to shape KinkForAll’s next incarnation in Denver; what’s the most responsible way for me to use that power?
After a lot of thought, I finally figured out who the money should go to: I’m giving it to maymay. Some people will be extremely angry about this. I don’t care. In the interest of diplomacy and trying to make everyone feel good, I’ve studiously avoided defending him in public. It hasn’t worked, of course. Everyone still assumes I’m “on his side” due to my personal connection with him. So, fuck it. I’m moving back from KFADEN, but here’s a place where I’m moving up:
I am on maymay’s side. One-hundred percent.
The reason I believe in maymay’s work isn’t because he’s my friend; he’s my friend because I believe in his work. I believe in WHAT he’s doing. I believe in HOW he’s doing it – and that it’s okay, even good, that he does it imperfectly sometimes. Contrary to popular belief, maymay is a human. He’s a technologically-augmented human, yes, but he is human nonetheless. We’re always trying to teach allies to let themselves be human, to Keep Doing The Work and not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Maymay has been an incredible role model — and a badly needed one for me personally — of not being afraid to fuck up and not getting paralyzed by guilt when I do. And, most importantly for me with my neurotic need to take care of everyone else all the time, maymay’s example has taught me that if I do what I believe is right and it results in people being angry at me, misunderstanding me, writing me off, calling me names…that’s not the end of the world. Conflict won’t kill me. Upsetting people doesn’t make me a monster; in fact, it means I’m human, more human than I’ve let myself be for a long time.
(And it’s still hard. I’ve hardly got this down. In fact, I ran this very essay by about five different people before I posted it, because I was so worried about the many ways it might hurt peoples’ feelings.)
I also believe that most people don’t understand what maymay’s trying to do. Which is totally fair. It took me a huge investment of time, energy, and emotional resources to do the research required to get my head around his theory and methodology. His work pushed all kinds of uncomfortable emotional buttons for me. I only took the trouble it because his work was directly relevant to my life. And it is totally legitimate for other people not to want to do that much work just to understand someone they already don’t know and don’t like. But I’m glad I did.
Why? Why does maymay’s work matter to me so much? So much that I’ve been willing to put my reputation, my “radical politics”, and the respect of my community on the line to support it? Because the work he’s doing makes space for people like me to survive. Maymay’s not trying to get rid of BDSM; he’s trying to make it complicated. And here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter whether people understand how he’s doing that; it still works. If you didn’t walk away from KFADEN and the discussions surrounding it with more complicated feelings about BDSM than you came in with, we must’ve been at two different events.
And that makes people like me — for whom BDSM is motherfucking complicated whether I like it or not — feel like maybe we’re not crazy. Like maybe we’re not damaged. Like maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad about what does or doesn’t turn us on.
No matter what you think of his political rhetoric, maymay’s work — as a whole — made me feel like it’s really, really okay not to psychosexually self-injure just to take care of other peoples’ feelings. He may not speak the language of empowerment in the way we’re used to hearing it from other feminist men but, empirically, the language he was speaking actually empowered me to take care of myself. Nobody else, no matter how much they’ve loved me and wanted the best for me, has ever been able to convince me to do that; nobody else has ever known how. I care about that. I care about his ability to do that for other people. Other people like the “invisible girl” I had coffee with today. The mutual friend who put us in touch was maymay.
Because, again, I’m not the only one who’s felt shamed into years silent self-hatred by the BDSM Scene’s obfuscatory “Nothing To See Here” rhetoric compounded on oppressive mainstream cultural norms. Mine is just one story. If you’ve never heard from any others (and there are others who are talking about it in various ways), that might tell you something about who our communities are actually silencing. After all, I’m gutsy as fuck and it’s still taken me ’til almost 30 years old to feel safe talking about this in public. And I only feel this safe (which is not very) because I’ve had enough conversations in private to know there are others who get it and have my back. And because of maymay and KFADEN.
Regardless of my community’s emotional reactions are to his tactics or personality, the problematizing, complicating work maymay does — within the BDSM Scene and elsewhere — is helping create a more spacious, complex, compassionate world. It’s a world I want to live in. If you look closely, you might find it’s a world you want to live in, too. None of this means you’re required to like him, trust him, or want to invite him over for dinner. But I do need you to respect my agency, my intelligence, my emotional competence, and my right to support and engage with maymay’s political work in the ways that feel the most healing and empowering for me — because I, too, know more about my own life than you do.
Meanwhile, if any of this resonates for you and you’d like to be a part of doing this work in Denver, let’s talk. And if you’d like to help out with KFADEN2, I suggest you contact maymay directly. He’s not hard to find. He’s all over the Internet. 😉