Note: This is a republication of my post from January, 2012.

Earlier today, I got into a bit of a tiff in the comments at The Edge of Vanilla, which is the inimitable Tom Allen’s blog. What began as a calling out of some of the racist, sexist, and classist replies to Tracy Clark-Flory’s fantastic interview with anthropology professor Margot Weiss turned into a disagreement with Tom himself. It was at first distressing to me because Tom is one of the smartest and most diplomatic bloggers I know, so I was supremely disappointed when I encountered such straight-up bullshit in his comments, and I didn’t see him calling that out for what it was.

Further, I was really disappointed in Tom for apparently missing some very basic knowledge about ignorance—such as its dictionary definition—that I was almost certain he was already quite well-versed in. Thankfully, Tom’s diplomatic skill re-centered the discussion on the issues Weiss raises, which got me thinking about how to explain my own understanding of her work.

What follows is an excerpted cross-post of one of my comments in the thread:

[M]uch of Weiss’s work unpacks the effects of late-capitalist consumerism on BDSM sexuality; that’s among her work’s main themes. One of her articles I linked to earlier was expressly about this. In it, she writes that “marketers have tapped into the allure and exoticism of SM sexuality to sell an ever-widening array of products,” and this critique is, of course, relevant to most if not all subcultures that exist in societies employing late-capitalist economic models—most of the world, in other words.

I think the tech industry is arguably one of the most salient and illustrative examples of this. Its ever-increasing speed of innovation is a natural companion to the capitalistic impetus behind planned obsolescence.

The important take-away seems to me to be that mainstays of capitalistic practice have obvious parallels to The Scene, precisely because of the public BDSM Scene’s emphasis on things like “toys” and physical skill based classes. On that note, Weiss elaborates in her 2006 article, Working at Play. There, she writes:

As BDSM has become more mainstream, more organizationally focussed and more middle-class, practitioners work on their SM in self-conscious ways, mobilizing American discourses of self-improvement, actualization and education.

[…]

Thus, as I have been describing, the time, money and energy practitioners spend on their SM practice is a form of sociality. Combining consumption, community and pleasure, contemporary BDSM sexualities are a form of working at play[…].

What’s left unsaid in this excerpt but that the Salon.com article touches on is the way such socioeconomic divides segment the population; those who can and those who can not access such social work-play. That’s the very definition of classism and The BDSM Scene doesn’t just mirror that behavior, it actually intentionally amplifies that very trait in order to function as it desires—and that’s classist.

I find Weiss’s critique even deeper than this, though, because that same blockading of access to (“alternative,” or “BDSM”) sexuality helps maintain the oppressive “man box” for men of color. The constant barrage of cultural obstacles barricading a self-actualized expression of one’s sexuality is doubly true and—speaking as a white submissive man—I suspect unfathomably more painful for submissive men of color. From this angle, the support structures for both racism and sexism can be seen more clearly: classism and specifically capitalism doesn’t just inform, but actually intentionally supports both racism and sexism. As you, yourself, said:

The people who run the scene clubs don’t have a lot of motivation to change things because if the elitist, money-spending sceners are uncomfortable, then they might go elsewhere, and all of that cool dungeon equipment and play space will sit unused and empty, and more importantly, won’t put any money into the club owner’s pockets.

It is precisely this kyriarchical structure that Weiss pinpoints when she critiques the whiteness of the Scene. That’s why it’s no surprise that self-identified “privileged white women” would not enjoy being reminded of their unflattering participation in such an oppressive system. In fact, at the party I was at last weekend, I piped up about this fact and one white woman plainly said, “Yeah…I’ve been trying not to think about all that stuff this weekend.” So I was honest with her when I replied, “I like to make it difficult for people to forget about all that.”

Sometimes that means I make it difficult for people to uncritically enjoy the sex they have. I am more than okay with that. It is, in fact, an integral piece of my goal. Or, in my own crass language, many of these people are Puny Kings of their own Petty Hills; they behave like privileged shits.

Moreover, the monetary expense required to participate in the (semi-)public BDSM Scene in a way that is legitimized by The Scene’s “Powers That Be” is, as mentioned, one reason why it remains overwhelmingly white, but also a reason why The Scene remains overwhelmingly adultist. For more about that, I recommend reading Tynan Fox’s poignant piece at Leatherati.com called The Price of Admission.

I suspect that if you’re looking to make a difference, then you’ve got to approach things the way that generally works with other aspects of culture: convince people—the regular scene goers—that the things that you would like to see can be status enhancing and even trendier than what they already have.

This is where I think we fundamentally disagree, Tom. And that’s fine.

Your line of thinking seems to be that providing avenues of access to the privileges maintained by the systems of power described above is a way to “make a difference.” While making a difference is a noble goal, and one I share, accessing privileges through the system that blockades access to marginalized groups sounds a lot like the same old, tired liberal arguments that give us sweatshop-produced rainbow flags. You are, in other words, encouraging people to participate in behavior that is fundamentally callous towards the already-most-marginalized groups of people, rather than encouraging them to do the one thing every one of us could do right now to have an unstoppable power: refuse to participate.

And this is why I am a liberationist, and you seem to be an assimilationist. We don’t have to agree, but I need to understand your position (and I feel I do) and you need to examine your priorities (and I trust you will, if you’re not already doing so).

The discussion thread, still fresh on Tom’s blog, is a good one for you to hop into if you have any opinions or points to raise that I missed. There’s much more I want to say about this, but I’ve got lots to do tonight and I’ve already spent too much time arguing on the Internet.

For those of you in New York City, please consider coming to Conversio Virium’s upcoming free, open to the public meeting next Monday, January 23. I’ll be talking more about this sort of stuff (and a whole lot more) at my presentation there: “Who Else Wants More Play and Less Stress In the Dungeon?” (There’s also a FetLife event you can RSVP to, if you prefer.)