(Note: This post is a republication of my original post from February, 2012.)
Last night, I attended Matriarchy at The RACK Room in Denver, Colorado, at the gracious invitation of the venue’s owners, Jeff and Headmistress Saskia. The event bills itself as:
[O]pen to ALL women (sub, slave, top, mistress, cis, trans, female-identified, etc.) and men wearing their sub, slave or bottom hats.
Men are welcome at the invitation of a female guest, but must come in a bottom, submissive, or slave role and are not allowed to top in scenes at Matriarchy events.
Apparently, the event’s been happening since at least December, 2010, when Saskia described it as:
[A] party for kinky women (including trans), be they dom, sub, switch or other. Males are allowed only as guests of a female and are considered in service to that female for the evening. Males aren’t allowed to do much of anything at this event unless a woman gives them permission.
The party’s turnout was small (maybe about 20 people or so). It also—thankfully—had a far more casual attitude around that stupid protocol than either the event’s or Saskia’s phrasing seemed to suggest, though I don’t know how much of the casual attitude was caused by the party being, well, not much of a party. The “lots of play” promised by the event invitation was had almost exclusively by the evening’s hosts, themselves.
I was there to talk about KinkForAll Denver, which I did. But I was also there because, hey, BDSM parties are where I Work, which I did, too. Such events are a bit like distributed laboratories, offering me a way to observe structural patterns in what ignorant people consistently insist is simply individual preference; having the privilege to access these laboratories in disparate locales is one of the things that helped me understand the ways in which The BDSM Scene is actually a systemic abuser.
This is also why it’s incredibly frustrating to me that members of the BDSM Scene behave incredulously when it’s revealed that there are abusers among their midst. It’s not just that real abuse does happen in BDSM communities (just like everywhere else in our violence-addicted culture), although that’s certainly heartbreaking. It’s that the BDSM Scene is an institution whose most lauded characteristics actively attract abusers.
Need proof? Just contrast Saskia’s flippant wording for Matriarchy (“Males aren’t allowed to do much of anything at this event unless a woman gives them permission.”) with the kinds of experiences often endured by people suffering intimate partner violence (“control where you go or what you do”).
Of course, it’s important to distinguish between the BDSM Scene as an institution, what I’ve termed the BDSM Scene-State, and some given BDSM play activity itself. The short-sighted and, bluntly, stupid conflation of systemic versus individualistic perspectives, coupled with dramatic misunderstandings of what BDSM ethnographer Staci Newmahr calls “the erotic-violent dualism” is the source of the absurd defensiveness with which many BDSM Scenesters adamantly deny their unflattering participation in such an oppressive system. Moreover, the very fact that I’ve heard this silly “but we’re special” story in every single regional Scene I’ve travelled is, itself, proof of the structurally abusive dynamics to which I point.
Further, the distinction between individualistic and systemic perspectives is what enables BDSM to problematize many of the things that it does, consent being the most widely discussed. By way of example, the use of safewords mirrors the US Government’s Veterans Affairs office recommended use of “code words” to help prevent intimate partner violence:
Consider finding a code word to use as a distress signal to family members, children, and friends. Inform them in advance that if they hear you use the code word, they should get help right away.
While you can “safeword” during a scene, you can’t safeword The Scene. Just as rape culture is the institutionalization of (systemic) sexism, the BDSM Scene is the institutionalization of the practice of fetishizing oppression culture; it is, to use McKenzie Wark’s phrasing, an abstraction—a double of a double. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people who are “not white, heterosexual, class-privileged, cisgendered, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, etc. [have wondered why] the BDSM Scene just doesn’t work” for them.
The BDSM Scene needs to be resisted not because the BDSM Scene is “inherently bad,” but because it is a system. The simple exercise of tallying imagery at BDSM venues exposes this nicely.
Last night at The RACK Room, I counted 22 images of women to 2 images of men. The former were mostly framed pictures on the walls, while the latter were both attached to the refrigerator and partially obscured by the jumble of postcards and other odds and ends. One conversation I had with a party-going couple in attendance was particularly telling.
“Why do you think there are so many pictures of women and so few of men?” I asked.
“Well, that’s what sexy photos look like,” the man said. “To men, anyway,” he added.
“This is also a pro-domme house,” the woman offered, “so I think a lot of it has to do with the clientelle.”
“Oh,” I said, feigning surprise. ”So why are so many of the women in the photos tied up, then?” I asked them.
“Well, again, that’s sexy,” the man said.
“For what viewer, though?” I pressed him. He paused. “Are you saying submissive men want to see women tied up when they’re paying to be dominated by women?”
“Huh,” he said, “that does seem a little odd.”
Clearly, this had never occurred to him and, more to the point, it had never pained him before. That ignorance belies a privilege. It was and always is easy to point to the most well-known oppressions, like race, gender, class, and so on. And yet there are so many others so often overlooked and sometimes even more impactful.
As with all of us, Jeff and Saskia like to tout their inclusiveness, their sensitivity, their anti-oppressive intentions. But all of these things are constrained by the limits of what we can perceive. When I am feeling generous, I believe they remain exclusive of, insensitive to, and oppressive against what they don’t see not because they are bad people, but because they are invested in—and now beholden to—the system that grants them privileges they are not even aware they have. When I am feeling less generous, I believe they are also lazy, because, come on, they’re hosting a party where the thing they’re harping on is the way males “aren’t allowed to do much of anything…unless a woman gives them permission” and they haven’t even bothered to hang some pictures of men tied up on their walls? I mean, really?
So, while it’s (relatively) easy to point out the systemic sources and influences of something so blatantly obvious like that—I say as someone who’s been enormously hurt by how difficult it’s been to make people aware of these influences—it’s just as important, yet far more difficult, to point at even more “innocuous” or “individual” situations as being influenced by and contributing to systemic cultural indoctrination.
I don’t even know how to begin discussing some of these other, more innocuous things, which makes me rather timid. So, in lieu of having much else, I’ll share a relevant portion of an email I wrote to an organizer of the Myth parties in NYC some months ago:
I do think party spaces can offer a certain value and that they are important for sustaining a certain kind of social group. However, I strongly disagree with you that party or party-like spaces offer much if any value or opportunity for “the connection of those people with potential role models” for values of “those people” who are, as I stated earlier, more like me and less like you. You are therefore creating a Scene that serves you and yours. And more power to you. But I feel strongly that you ought recognize your argument comes fundamentally from a place that frankly presumes the privilege of comfort with sexuality and sexualization itself. And consider, please, that in a world which is overwhelmingly sex-negative, the people who have such comfort are fewer and farther between than you may be ready to acknowledge, because such people include even myself, and I like to think of myself (as I hope you know) as a strong champion of the sex-positive movement.
At the risk of sounding unpleasantly rough, let me put it to you bluntly: I do not feel safe nor comfortable in a room full of people who generally know one another if I know that there is a desire among them to fuck one another when I am not already familiar with them socially. I had to work really, really, really fucking hard to feel comfortable at your Halloween party. And while I am obviously capable and willing to do that work to acclimate to social environments, I do not believe you have any clue just how much energy I poured into starting conversations, meeting people, and—for lack of a less skeevy way to put this—”working the party” to find conversational entries to meeting those who I wanted to meet. *AND I WASN’T EVEN THERE FOR THE NAKED PARTS,* as evidenced by the fact that I intentionally chose to leave your party when I noticed it was growing more…touch-focused.
Now, it is *not* your *job* to make your Halloween party comfortable for me, but, in my opinion, if you think that simply getting a bunch of kind people in a room together who are all, as your document put it, “respectful, kind, consent- and privilege-aware, awesome people who are as committed as we are to a fun, sexy, and above all, safe and consensual party,” then you are woefully under-informed about the obstacles to creating what I view as an actively socially-inclusive atmosphere for sex or any other social activity really are. And that is going to hinder the success of your party space if you view it, as you seem to, as an activist endeavor.
I realize this is harsh and critical, but I trust you not only need no sugarcoating, but prefer our conversation that way. When you said “most of my activism is sex” shortly after we met, by which I took to mean “most of my activism involves having sex and creating (safer) sexualized spaces,” I was immediately put off. I want to be clear that I respect your activism greatly, even while it is not my activism. In fact, I wish you much luck. I would love to participate in your parties; I’d totally volunteer, given the chance and some future hypothetical desire to attend. But such party-centrism so thoroughly permeates sexuality subculture that I have increasingly come to see it as syphoning off focus and attention from other activities, such as a sorely-needed greater understanding of the diversity inherent in the ways different people *are able to connect,* socially.
I was never asked “Are you enjoying yourself at this party?” or “How are you doing right now?” when I was in your Halloween party. No one asked me to tell them about who I was. Few people even bothered to start conversing with me unless and until I proved my value as an interesting person by happening to say something that sparked interest in them; and I had to stand there and listen and *look* for those openings, which is NOT something I could have done without the 8+ years of experience I’ve had at specifically trying to figure out how to navigate those social spaces.
Parties may be great for people who are attending with a cadre of friends, lovers, or other pre-established social connections. But they are frankly often very, very poor experiences for people not yet connected to a social *group.*
Again, none of this is a slight on you or your Halloween party. It is simply a retelling of my experience in the hopes that by being brutally honest about my experience that night might make you aware of a whole different set of experiences, ones that may heretofore have been invisible to you. I am, after all, very practiced at hiding this personal difficulty for the sake of social ease; and those who are not as good at hiding this difficulty do not often last long in such spaces. Thus the chicken-and-egg that I expressed frustration with in my “Fuck The Community” post repeats again. And again. And again. :(
I hope you raise the bar on the standards with which party organizers organize parties. God knows that’s needed, because most parties are fucking awful, sexually-classist spaces that I routinely, actively and unapologetically lambaste. In my view, they deserve it.
But it’s still a party. And unless Myth is a space where the kind of *active inclusion* I described lacking from your Halloween party is practiced, I frankly don’t think it’ll amount to much beyond a new Scene, and I simply don’t find new Scenes worthy of much investment.
Yeah, [a party can be a valuable space for queer people to connect with each other]. And for some, it is. Great. For many, it’s not. For many, there is no more dreadful feeling than being in the center of a crowded room and still feeling lonely for reasons that the “party” is simply unable or, worse, unwilling, to address.
No, Myth wasn’t a place of “active inclusion,” but that is a post for another day. Very few parties are. I’ve only been to 1 in my whole life where it wasn’t “the host’s job” to say hello and ask how people were doing, where people simply came up to me to ask with genuine, empathetic interest, “How are you feeling?” Even most “intentional communities,” who often enjoy defining themselves with a rhetoric of openness, behave hypocritically in this regard; they are just a clique with a fancy name.
I don’t find fault with individuals for systemic abuses. It’s the system supporting the hypocritical behavior I hate, and so should you, because such systems intentionally enforce ignorance.