So I want to share something I’m still working through. I tend not to share potentially inflammatory and early thoughts these days, mostly because of the spectre of the corrupt pop social justice mobsters who pounce on any chance they get to demonize me and my work. But I’m gonna share this anyway, this time, because I think I can meaningfully contribute something to this conversation and because I feel like I have enough support from rolequeers. Thank you. Y’all are awesome. Here goes.

At about 2 AM yesterday, I woke up in a fit. I didn’t feel very well-rested. I think I had some bad dreams, but I don’t remember them now. I checked Twitter and heard that Darren Wilson was not indicted for killing Mike Brown, and that Ferguson was burning.

So I re-read some of the discussions about race and its relationship to BDSM that recently took place here, much of which was curated and archived on rolequeer‘s blog. As I was thinking about it all I found myself needing help keeping the various different arguments in perspective with one another. So I grabbed a digital whiteboard and started making some charts.

At first I made a Venn diagram like the last one I made, but it seemed wrong. I threw that one out. Then I started writing a list of all the kinks that were mentioned in the discussion. That exercise produced the following list:

  • Race play
  • Master/slave relationships
  • Ageplay (Daddy/little girl, big/little, etc.)
  • Student/teacher (erotic “mentor”)
  • Eroticized workplace (boss/secretary)
  • Pet owners (pet play)
  • Ranchers (farm animal play)

Maybe there were some other things mentioned but these were the ones that seemed obviously central to the parts of the conversation I was privy to, to me.

Then I tried sorting this list along a number of different axes, namely “sensations,” “stories” and “felt senses,” as described in my other infographic post: Sensation, Story, and Felt Sense. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to yield any meaningful results either. But then it occurred to me that the items in this list aren’t actually sensations, stories, or felt senses at all. These are just descriptors for different classes of things. That is to say, none of these labels describes a specific thing per se, but rather they are all pointers that point at numerous other specific things that all do relate to each other in a way the label describes.

And when I realized that these were all labels, rather than specific kinks, when I started looking at this list as a taxonomy for taxonomies, then suddenly it became very obvious what these all had in common: slavery.

It might be shocking or even offensive to some to think of classifying a white secretary in a modern day office in the same schema as a Black cotton-picker on a Southern plantation in the 1800’s, or to liken a human child to a household pet, but the fact of the matter is all of those roles share something very meaningful at their core. That is of course not to say that these very different things are in fact the same in every way, or even the same in degree across their similarities. But I am arguing that at least some aspect of the things that they are, despite differences in other qualities and in the degree of the same quality, are in fact the same kind of thing. As I’ve said before, the difference between the quality of a thing and the degree of that thing can be subtle, and this subtlety, when left unexamined, is dangerous.

So let’s examine this more closely. I made a diagram to help. Like all diagrams, this one is somewhat simplified. It’s also intended as a guide for this conversation, not as a bounds to it.

Evolution-of-Slavery-pyramid

The diagram is a pyramid chart. It has five layers. Each layer of the pyramid except the fourth contains only one block. The fourth layer is split into two blocks. The first (earlier/lower) blocks are more foundational concepts that the latter (later/higher) blocks rely on for cultural legitimacy and erotic power.

Evolution of Slavery as observed through its manifestations in contemporary (erotic) contexts

Draft version 1, Nov. 26, 2014 originally from days.maybemaimed.com

  1. Objectification/Ownership
    • property rights, fantasizing about being someone’s “sex toy”
  2. Master/slave relationships
    • people-as-property; North-Atlantic slave trade, Chinese debt peons, early Roman law, and other enslavement of humans
    • use of animals as “beasts of burden”
  3. Ageism/Adultism
    • legal guardianship; children as property of parents,
    • student/teacher or parent/child (incest) play,
    • “committing” the elderly to institutional “homes”
  4. Racism / Speceisism

    • liberal human rights ideals, race play / human exceptionalism, pet play
  5. Employment
    • boss/secretary play,
    • “wage slavery,”
    • employee as “human resource”

Before I go into any depth, I want to point out two obvious “problems” with this diagram, and one arguable problem.

  1. First, this is not intended to be an exhaustive or all-encompassing survey. Obviously.
  2. Second, and more importantly, this is not intended to be about oppression olympics. I am not trying to point out that a given oppression, like ageism, is more or less “bad” than some other given oppression, like racism. Intersecting power relations don’t “cancel each other out,” obviously.
  3. Third, it is arguably politically risky at best and actively racist, speceisist, or both at worst to group racism and speceisism at the same “level” of a pyramid, which is a structure that itself has its own historical connotations of slavery, I should add. That is to say, it is classically racist to lump the enslavement of non-human animals and the enslavement of humans together as if they have the same level of significance; and it is classically speciesist to differentiate strictly between the enslavement of non-human animals and the enslavement of humans, as if they don’t have the same level of significance. Different people will of course prioritize, and thus spend more of their time and energy, focusing on anti-racism than anti-speciesism, or vice versa, at a given time and place. I am not trying to tell you what to do. I am trying to point out that I see a relationship between the dehumanization of humans and the way in which non-human animals are treated because “animals are not people.” Moreover, I observe that the dehumanization of humans and stripping personhood rights from non-human animals are used to justify each other. And, for now, I’m just saying that I think that’s worth examining more closely.

To summarize the above, the layers of the pyramid are intended to describe a given lens or way of thinking about where we learn and why we perpetuate abusive behaviors. To do this, I purposefully mixed institutional memories like anthropological records (such as “early Roman law”) with personal experiences (we were all treated differently because we were young before we were consciously aware that racism existed). This is an obvious flaw in the diagram. Oppression isn’t either/or, nor solely hierarchical. I know that. That’s not the point. Please don’t derail here.

Now, there are several arguments I’m trying to sort out in my own head with the aide of the graph. They are:

  1. Slavery is a relation of dominion; domination draws cultural legitimacy from the notion of property. That is, ownership exists because “property rights” are a privilege certain people have over certain things that other people do not. No matter how well-intentioned this may have once been or still is (see copyright, ala “intellectual property”), I argue that ownership—in all and every aspect of existence—is a fundamentally corrupt and corrupting idea. In fact, “ownership” is not a “right” people have at all. Rather, ownership is a way of (often but not always violently) enforcing a certain relationship that a given person or people has or have to something else, either another person or group of people or a literal object. In other words, “ownership” is actually a sociocultural technology that manages resource scarcity; in a theoretical universe of unlimited resources, ownership becomes meaningless except as a mechanism of social control.
  2. Where “ownership” exists, some variation of “slavery” is the inevitable outcome. The variation may not be what we’re used to thinking about when we hear the word “slavery,” but there is no fundamental difference between a “human resource” and a “slave” except the various referential euphemisms and the overtness of enslavement. A “wage slave” is not a “slave” in the same way that a minor is not a pet, yet the self-determination of both wage slaves and minors is obviously harshly constrained in some strikingly similar ways. In the same way that Dominants Are Rapists, this means that Governments (and Corporations) Are Slavers, and that Bosses (and Teachers and Parents) Are Taskmasters.
  3. With respect to “slavery” as we do often stereotype it today, this lens highlights the fact that many peoples have been enslaved in different circumstances throughout history. For example, in addition to the enslavement of African peoples, many Chinese people were enslaved in the Americas by genocidal whites, typically for railroad construction work.
  4. Slavery is not solely a historical phenomenon. It happens today, in “civilized,” contemporary, modern day societies. You can find it in places like Dubai, wherever political repression rips people from their homes and social relationships, and every time we look at our Apple computers and iPhones. In fact, slavery is even part-and-parcel of the food many of us eat. So there is no need to stereotype or embellish slavery with the trappings of a bygone era, nor to obsessively hyperfocus solely on some forms of slavery (like sex trafficking) to the exclusion of others in order to speak to the abusiveness of slavery in contemporary contexts. If you can only picture one ultra-specific historical period or only one ultra-specific form of coercion when you hear “slavery,” then you do not understand the breadth and scope of the issue and because of this ignorance you will inevitably fail to recognize the true extent of its impact today.

Now, once again, with respect to the third point, I want to be clear that I do not mean to downplay or minimize colorism. Instead, I want to point out that slavery is in fact distinct from racism, but that it is nonetheless deeply informed by and inextricably linked to it given our placement in time and space. At the same time, I am pointing out that ageism and racism are also inextricably linked; just recall slurs like “boy” sometimes still used to refer to Black men, or the reports of recent twelve year-old Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of a police killer being described by white media making him seem older than he is to strip him of his youthful innocence.

Likewise, employment is similarly implicated in all these -isms, too; employment is a form of abuse, and there is no such thing as “ethical employment.” What this means is that classism and slavery are also definitionally interrelated terms. Therefore, any discussion purporting to be “anti-racist” that nevertheless denies or downplays racism’s relationship to classism are themselves racist discussions supporting white supremacy.

The above thought process has brought me to three conclusions so far.

First, that people are almost surely invoking a racist history even when we eroticize ownership in what we think are racially neutral ways (such as pet play or age play) and that white people like me need to be especially mindful of this, and especially if our partners are people of color. This is because when we eroticize ownership we are also by definition eroticizing slavery, and when we are eroticizing slavery we are eroticizing something horrible that is happening all over the world right now, today. In other words, “D/s relationships” are Master/slave relationships.

Second, that people need to internalize why race is not the same thing as racism, and that the former does not exist but the latter is real. “Race” is a made-up thing in the same way that “gender” is a made-up thing. There is no such thing as “man” in the same way there is no such thing as “white.” That is to say, whiteness does not exist as a meaningful individual aspect of identity except insofar as it was created and continues to be used to dominate and oppress—to lord power over—people of “other colors.”

Third, I do not think people need to be people of color to relate to and find compassion for the psychosomatic damage slavery causes, because we do not need to be people of color to be or become slaves. That does not mean the experience of whites is equivalent to the experience of People of Color; slavery is not the same as racism. It means that there are many places we white folks can look towards to find ways that the system of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, to use the overwrought and flowery terms of the academe, enslaves everyone in various aspects of our own lives. We can and should use these experiences to divest from an identity that supports white supremacy, and to motivate ourselves to acts that undermine structural racism. But this also means that people of color, Black and Brown, African and South American and Asian and Indigenous peoples, are all obviously more keenly aware of how concepts like ownership and property relate to power, as well as what impacts emanate from those interconnections.

And that means “white people” like me should STFU and fucking listen to them when they talk about that. Because we’ve got a lot to learn. And I, for one, am interested in what they are willing to share.