This past Saturday, KinkForAll Providence was hosted at Brown University and sponsored by the Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council (SHEEC), chaired by undergraduate student Aida Manduley. I had an awesome time. The unconference sparked fantastically interesting and very important conversations, including discussions about the approach different cultures have to sex and sexuality (notably traditional Mexican and Puerto Rican culture), how people with otherwise “alternative” views can fit into and become personally empowered within a larger mainstream that they are often swimming against, and many more things.
Best of all, these conversations didn’t just stay within the four walls of our venue among the participants who attended physically, but it also reached out across the Internet thanks to the KinkForAll Providence live video stream, Twitter conversations, and KFAPVD liveblogs. I think the event’s use of the Internet was truly remarkable this time, because we were able to literally invite anyone in the world to literally watch and see and participate in the discussions that we were having, even if they were unable to be physically present, and even if not everyone agreed with what was being said all the time. Most importantly, as I said in my presentation, since we were able to inspire conversation, everyone stayed within the realm of constructive discourse, and that means we were able to create knowledge, even while individuals may have disagreed on some points.
Below is a video of my presentation. As usual, my presentation is “open source” and Creative Commons licensed. Feel free to download it, use it yourself, or share it with anyone you think might find it valuable. If you do, I would greatly appreciate a link back to this page.
- On Dichotomies that (No Longer) Jail Me keynote presentation as a ZIP archive.
- On Dichotomies that (No Longer) Jail Me keynote presentation as a PDF document.
- On Dichotomies that (No Longer) Jail Me keynote presentation as a text transcript.
I am deeply grateful to Emma for helping me with this presentation and also for taking a leading role in unorganizing KinkForAll Providence (so I didn’t actually do so much this time—and I think that’s great!). Similarly, I’m also grateful to Aida Manduley for getting this event sponsored by SHEEC and for being the primary unorganizer for venue-related issues. There were some, but she handled them beautifully and deserves more praise for more reasons than many of you know. Their persistence, professionalism, thoroughness, and ardent support of sexual freedom, freedom of speech, and students’ rights were what made this event possible, even in the face of some very harsh and alarmist criticism.
With that thanks in mind, here’s the entirety of the presentation I gave at KinkForAll Providence as a text transcript:
First of all, let me just say that this is amazing. Look at all of us here at the fifth KinkForAll unconference in the first year of KinkForAll unconferences! KinkForAll Providence is now the 5th KinkForAll event being held in the 1-year history of the event’s conception. That’s one KinkForAll, in 4 different cities so far, about every 2 months or so for a whole year! Wow!
This event is thanks in large part to the amazing work of two women: Emma Gross, and Aida Manduley, who’s Chair of the Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council here at Brown University. They’re responsible for getting us this space and so much more. Let’s give them a huge hand! (APPLAUSE) I like that name: Sexual Health Education and Empowerment Council. Health, education, and empowerment.
I like that name because I think we are actually taught, from a very young age, to see the world in dichotomies, a set of things that are exclusive from an opposing set of things. Dichotomies are necessarily polarizing and, if you’re not careful, they can be paralyzing. Indeed, dichotomies can be DISempowering.
Self-empowerment relies upon our ability to recognize existing dichotomies so that we can utilize them and, if necessary, so that we can break out of them. As Stephen R. Covey, author of the best-selling “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” reminds us:
Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.
Dichotomies are genuinely useful, even necessary. We use them all the time to make sense of the world around us. In fact, dichotomies themselves conveniently come in two mutually exclusive varieties! These are: true dichotomies, and false dichotomies.
Unfortunately, many of the dichotomies that contemporary culture teaches us are one kind are actually the other! Specifically, many dichotomies that you might’ve thought were true are actually false! According to Wiktionary, the Wikipedia-like dictionary, a false dichotomy, just so that we’re all on the same page, is:
A situation in which two alternative points of views are presented as the only options, whereas others are available.
How many of the dichotomies that hegemonic culture says are “true” do you think are actually false? I think the answer might surprise you, and that’s what I’m hoping to do in this presentation: I want to help you recognize these dichotomies. In fact, that’s what the entire founding concept behind KinkForAll is about!
KinkForAll’s tag line is:
A serendipitous, ad-hoc unconference about the intersection of sexuality with the rest of life.
This idea, that sexuality can intersect with all the other things in our lives, seems to be something that a lot of people are really uncomfortable with. Their discomfort highlights several dichotomies, one of which is this one:
- Obscene vs Decent
As it happens, this is one of the many false dichotomies that are societally constructed. How do we know that? Easy! Not everyone is uncomfortable with sexuality intersecting certain aspects of their lives, and some people are only uncomfortable with it intersecting with some parts of their lives, but not with others. This variability is the signature of all false dichotomies. Remember that!
Just to drive the point home, let me tell you a short story. Once upon a time (okay, actually in 1966), in a land far, far away (okay, actually in Kristiansand, Norway), lived a man by the name of Jens Bjørnboe. Jens was a painter and a school teacher, but more than anything else, he was a writer. Jens loved to write, and had already published a book of deeply religious poetry, Poems (Dikt, 1951), and a book that dealt with shortcomings of the school system, Jonas (1955).
Then, Jens wrote a fictional novel about an 18 year old girl named “Lillian” who had to masturbate to have orgasms, called Without a Stitch. According to one review:
Without a Stitch begins with a bit of girl-on-girl frolicking with Lillian and Brita [Lillian’s classmate], as well as Lillian’s attempts at having fun with the inexperienced Henry. She can’t get the desired satisfaction when Henry fumbles around, and in reaction becomes a real cock-tease — and eventually she realises she needs some professional help. Thank god Brita refers her to Dr. Peterson.
Now, Dr. Peterson is, “a specialist in the orgasm” andLillian entrusts herself into his care, with all the desired results.Nice. :) The review continues,
Lillian’s problem seems to be that she worries about what her mother and grandmother might think, causing these inhibitions that hold her back. But Dr. Peterson helps her overcome these, and instructs her in his own moral code — which amounts to that all sex is good (and more is apparently better …), as long as no one is hurt or taken advantage of. It takes a lot of daily sessions — during which she’s not allowed to be with any other man — to get the message across, but finally she’s cured.
All right, so: a woman of legal adulthood who was so concerned about what others might think of her that she can’t have orgasms overcomes that fear under the care of a physician who tells her that all sex is good as long as no one is hurt or taken advantage of. Okay, so there’s some lesbian scenes, but also some really strict monogamy. Doesn’t sound so out-there radical to me, really.
Unfortunately for Jens, it did sound radical to the government of Norway, and Bjørnboe suffered an obscenity conviction for publishing the book as pornography. Interestingly, his fictional porn would arguably pale in comparison to the non-fiction writing I’ve published on my own blog—and that I’ve read from countless other bloggers! Obviously then, we are obscene by some standards but not by others. Indeed, obscenity standards vary with time, place, and a host of other things.
More interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that Jens Bjørnboe went on to publish his most well-known work, The History of Bestiality, and as far as I can tell the Norwegian government didn’t care to prosecute him for publishing pornography in that case. Huh.
Jens was a pretty uncompromising man. He once said,
People speak of ‘sexual morality,’ but that is a misleading expression. There is no special morality for sex. No matter what you do with yourself, whether you go to bed with girls or with boys, and no matter what it occurs to you to do with them or with yourself, no moral rule applies to that sphere of activity other than the principles that govern every aspect of life: honesty, courage, common humanity, consideration.
What Jens understood that I think is so valuable is that people who dichotomize consensual sexual activity into obscene and decent acts also tend to approach morality as a dichotomy; they couple obscene with immoral and decent with moral. Indeed, Jens sees that the failure to recognize one false dichotomy actually blurs one’s view of which other dichotomies are true and which are not. On the other hand, when you begin to see the gradations between things you once simplistically believed were absolutes, you empower yourself to break out of all false dichotomies.
Now, before I go any further, it’s important to mention that false dichotomies are not inherently bad things; they can be useful, as I mentioned, and they can be a lot of fun. Case in point, I think dichotomies of power are really fucking sexy! Specifically, I have always loved (and still love) playing—but not being—powerless. That is, I enjoy being sexually submissive.
Trouble is, I’m a man. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: DUH! Thing is, the fact that I’m a man wasn’t always clear to me. In fact, thanks to this really strong tendency that false dichotomies, when we incorrectly believe they are true, have of reinforcing one another, for the longest time I thought I was actually a woman! Yeah! Let me tell you why.
In mainstream Western society, and indeed in most modern cultures, this dichotomy of power–dominance on one hand and submission on the other–reinforces this other, totally unrelated anywhere but in some people’s minds, false dichotomy: the one of gender, with men on one side, and women on the other. And then, as if that weren’t enough, both of those false dichotomies are also strung together like this, so that dominance and manliness is also coupled with activity, while submission and femininity is also coupled with passivity. The trouble with that, for me, was that I like being active and I like being passive in bed!
And then, as if that weren’t enough, I turned 13, and I put a toothbrush in my butt–and I liked it! So now I discovered this other, additional incorrect coupling: penetration is coupled with being active, which, as we’ve already seen is coupled with manliness, which ostensibly makes it dominant. On the other side, being penetrated is coupled with being passive or “receptive,” which, remember, is coupled with womanliness, which makes it ostensibly submissive. So now my 13 year old self is totally fucking confused and has no idea what the fuck I am–man, woman, top, bottom, active partner, passive partner–except that I knew I really liked getting tied up and I really like my toothbrush in my butt.
But wait, there’s more! One year later, my younger brother made friends with this really cute guy in his class and he started coming over to our place and I got a really big crush on him. And that’s when I learned that contemporary culture said, if I was, in fact, a boy, that I was also gay! Yeah, even though I also also masturbated to thoughts of girls! Because apparently, to fit in with contemporary culture, you can’t be bisexual if you’re a man. You’ve gotta be either straight or gay. And even though I was “only” 14, I knew that if you like your toothbrush in your butt, you’re gay!
So, like, oh my god! Could I be a gay boy who liked girls? Was that possible? Was I just…wrong about everything? Fuck, was there something wrong with me? Maybe there was something wrong with these distinctions. Maybe not all of them were true dichotomies. Hmm….
Thankfully, I had (drum roll please) THE INTERNET! Yes, the Internet. I did some searches. I surfed a bunch of sites. I read a lot of porn. I had some more pretty confused orgasms. And then, I found this: The Kinsey Scale.
What was so interesting about the Kinsey scale was that it introduced me to this idea that there were gradations in sexual orientation. That’s when it clicked: I’m probably some kind of bisexual. So, ignoring for a moment the limitations of this concept, I figured that if there were gradations in sexual orientation, maybe there were gradations in a bunch of those other dichotomies.
Of course, it turns out, yes, there are. There’s a big wide world of queer between the poles of heteronormativity, switches enjoy varying consensual sexual power differentials, and even when it comes to anatomical characteristics there are varying degrees of intersexuality that mix male and female. So, long story short, even though I really liked that toothbrush, I eventually upgraded to a strap-on because I knew that one’s gender identity, such as man or woman, and the enjoyment one gets from a particular sexual activity, such as penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse or receptive buttsex, are in no way directly correlated.
Sure, sometimes I want penetration to be about power, but it never had to be anymore, because now I had the freedom, and the power to decide how anything outside of me would affect me. I found that the better I got at decoupling an activity from a preconceived notion of what it means, the more fun sex became. And even when I do choose to get penetrated submissively, it always has to be about good sex first and foremost, not about some misguided morality or sexist system of beliefs.
Okay, I know this is a talk at a conference about sexuality, but let’s return for a moment to KinkForAll’s tagline:
A serendipitous, ad-hoc unconference about the intersection of sexuality with the rest of life.
What about the rest of life? Are dichotomies there, too? You betcha! Here’s an obvious one:
- Black vs. White (or, more generally, race)
And here’s how we know that’s a false dichotomy:
- Barack Obama
- halle berry, jordan sparks, tony parker, derek jeter, tyson beckford (he’s jamaican and chinese), slash (the drummer from guns n roses), lisa wu hartwell
Here’s a not-so-obvious dichotomy, but one I bet most people who came to see me speak had to think about at least a little bit before they came here:
- Public / private –> Out / closeted
For those that don’t know, when Sara Eileen and I co-founded KinkForAll, we took some very heavy criticism from people who believed that the essentially open and public nature of KinkForAll events were “recklessly endangering” participants, that we would be “outing” people. I believe this criticism was spawned from a belief in that false dichotomy: that to be public is to be out, that in order to have adequate privacy, people of sexuality minorities must be closeted.
That falsehood needlessly segregates sexuality apart from the rest of our lives. In reality, no one is ever completely in the closet or out of it. You might be out about some things to some people, but not out to others. By coming to KinkForAll events, people are forced to grapple with the reality that the closet is not a binary.
Here’s another one that KinkForAll events make some people grapple with:
- Academic / non-academic (education)
also known as
- educated / uneducated
- graduate / drop-out
I like this one because I’m a middle-school drop-out. But anyway, after she gave a presentation at the very first KinkForAll in New York City, Emily Rutherford wrote this in her blog about the experience:
I think that a lot of what was exciting about [KinkForAll] is the way that the format combines academic and non-academic modes of talking about sex and sexuality. The “conference” is an academic model in a way that many existing modes of social interaction for sexuality groups aren’t, but this conference didn’t presume any academic background or qualifications. I think that [KinkForAll] bridged gaps between different registers of discussion, taking academese down a peg while applying a theoretical and philosophical level to more casual conversations.
KinkForAll is not really an “organization,” just individuals acting in concert toward a share goal; a collective, maybe. I was urged, numerous times, to trademark KinkForAll and a few people thought it needed to be a registered 501(c)3 organization to really make a difference at all. But that’s just another false dichotomy, because we don’t need to be a 501(c)3 to make a difference.
Indeed, the millennial generation–our generation–is recognizing more and more false dichotomies, and younger people are consistently speaking up to make a difference. That’s what David Jay did in 2001, when he was a 19 year old undergraduate student at Wesleyan University just a few hours from here. David said:
Sexuality is like any other activity. There are people for whom skydiving, chocolate cake and soccer are their world. But some people don’t like skydiving, chocolate cake or soccer. There’s no reason to focus your energy and attention on something you feel no reason to do anything about.
That year, David founded The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), which became the online headquarters for the asexuality movement. David recognized that even sex drive itself is correctly seen by many as coupled to dichotomies; that mens’ drives is necessarily stronger than womens’, for instance. Contrary to popular belief, sex is not a compulsion, and the desire for sex is not a universally shared instinct.
I believe AVEN’s work is enormously important because rape culture will dissipate and victim-blaming will stop only when everyone understands that our sex drives–our feelings of lust–are an independent facet of our sociosexual makeup. Men are no more or less interested in sex because they are men than women are. Perhaps counter-intuitively, asexuality is the keystone that supports a healthily sexual society.
All right, so, let’s review. Dichotomies come in two flavors: true and false. Both kinds are useful, and potentially sexy, but not good to confuse. So don’t let “man” or “woman” jail you. Don’t even let “animal” or “person” jail you! Hell, The Supreme Court isn’t letting the insignificant detail of corporeal existence prevent corporations from being people!
The bottom line is this: don’t wait for permission to do or be something that doesn’t fit into whatever or wherever other people happen to think you are. You don’t need someone’s permission to break out of a false dichotomy, or to become empowered.
You just do it. You can do it. We broke out of restrictive dichotomies just being at KinkForAll Providence! You’re doing it now if you’re watching this video, ‘cuz you’re thinking. So you don’t need to wait for your schools, or parents, or your teachers to fill you with knowledge, or to give you permission to grow in whatever direction you want. You’re doing it already.
You become empowered whenever you do what you can to make our communities places we can be proud of, no matter how small an act it is. Cuz, y’see, your impact, even through small things, like sharing a link to some educational resource like the one I followed to find the Kinsey scale when I was a teenager, are kind of a big deal.
People with destructive goals are usually people who feel personally disempowered. So to be creative, you need to empower everyone to speak up, to have a presence—even people you don’t totally agree with.
And thinking about that, and seeing as how I broached this subject of dichotomies with quotes from a writer, I thought it fitting to end with another quote from another, recently passed writer, Howard Zinn. Howard Zinn said:
Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
KinkForAll is one of my small acts. Now it’s your turn. :)