I met Staci Newmahr shortly after I turned 18. At that time, the pseudo-public playspaces and “dungeons” of the early 2000’s S&M subculture defined “young” as “anyone who was not yet 40 years old, or 35 at least.” Despite being about a decade my senior, Staci (who would go on to author a widely acclaimed doctoral ethnographic thesis on the BDSM subculture called “Playing on the Edge” — yep, that’s me on the cover) was herself considered a “young woman.” Both youth and femaleness were then, as they are now, extremely attractive commodities in the patriarchal chicken-hawk’s haven I had just entered, a fact about which Newmahr writes with eloquence in her book. In contrast, there were regular complaints about me to the owner of at least one local playspace. “There’s a 15 year old guy here tonight!” My consistent presence and my almost unspeakable youth was a regular topic of discussion. At the time, there was no such thing as FetLife. And there was no sincere or critical discussion about consent (even by today’s standards of lip-service), to say nothing of any thought towards providing infrastructure for such a conversation. Contrary to many nostalgic daydreams, I found this as true of the gay male leather scene as it was for that scene’s “pansexual” (aka cishet) parallel.
The detail that is perhaps most illustrative of and yet most often omitted from the historical context of my theoretical work on BDSM is my collaborative relationship with Dr. Newmahr. For example, among the most overlooked parts of Newmahr’s work is her compelling contribution to breaking the binary divide between sex and violence, an articulation that was at least strongly influenced by the many hours of coffee-fueled, late-night to mid-day conversations in 24-hour diners she and I and a mutual friend enjoyed year after year. I won’t presume to be able to do any better in describing our relationship than Staci already did in her book:
It is impossible to extricate my thinking from theirs; this book was, in too many ways to count and ways impossible for anyone else to understand, also written by Mike and Maymay.
As both my ardent supporters and fiercest opponents know, this was not the same S&M subcultural environment in which young queers find themselves today. Obviously, the simple fact that I experienced my experiences at that time grants me requisite authority to speak about them now. I do not believe that the invocation of my name in several respected texts on the subject (of which Newmahr’s doctoral thesis is but one example) is a necessary appeal for claiming the authority with which I speak. Still, in the current climate of authority-fetishism in which we are all still trapped, such invocations do not harm my credibility. In contrast, conveniently forgetting my undeniable influence on the current State of the Art in the field, as my critics universally do, does exactly that kind of harm.
The fact is, I was among the very first of the Millenial generation to explore the physical extents of this specific S&M socio-subcultural terrain, and I did so to a degree rarely fully acknowledged; one that might not even be comprehensible to today’s young queers diving head first into the “sex-positive BDSM community.” Every part of me, from my physical form to my emotional essence, bears scars sustained from those and earlier journeys, different than the scars others in my generational epoch have sustained since, and continue to endure there today. If I were an industrial engineer who focused primarily on designing better helmets, it would be unsurprising to learn that I had suffered a head injury in the past. Why, then, is it so hard for people to consider what abuses, in what form, and with what personal impact, are responsible for my current unrelenting advocacy against “Dominants”? Doesn’t it seem at least a little weird that this question has never even appeared in criticism of me or my work, despite the fact that I now have almost as long of a history advocating against domination as I have a history of infatuation with it?
It is both personally and politically curious to observe that, in the contentious realm of cultural meaning-making, some of my fiercest opponents started out not so long ago as ardent fans. The selective forgetting of my personal history by those who once lauded me for my work on projects such as Male Submission Art, but who now express a strangely personal loss at my more recent advocacy, is part of what differentiates me from them. While I draw deeply from my own history and from the histories of queer cultures at large in my critique of BDSM, historical recall is conspicuously lacking in others’ “critiques” of me, a fact that is no doubt often intentional, and sometimes not, but always results in criticism that is flimsy at best.
My history is obviously relevant, given that my more recent advocacy is advocacy against the very same subculture in which I was for all intents and purposes socially acculturated and entrenched for the majority of my adult life. My traitorous behavior is itself highly informative about the nature of the subculture I am defecting from. People who find my critiques disquieting use my “hypocrisy” to reassure themselves of the accuracy of their “consistent” position, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to recognize that as an obviously circular argument. Isn’t it strange that these people never stop to consider why I would spend so much of my time advocating against, effectively, my own history?
As a person, these ongoing attempts to erase and repress my personal experiences from the discourse is deeply hurtful. But as a theorist, what’s interesting is that the pattern—because it is a pattern—of erasing lived experiences of sexual violence makes more sociocultural influences visible. So, what are those influences? What might this pattern mean on a macro-cultural scale? And, perhaps most tellingly, who stands to benefit from the selective exclusion of this specific historical context?
Let’s take a look.
For queers who came of age in the late 90s, the brutal slaughter of gay men like Matthew Shepherd (to name just one high-profile example) clearly informed the politic of our formative years. Queer meant screamed slurs and hiding in closets, elders we might’ve had much to learn from dying of AIDS, bloodied noses and bruised, beaten bodies at the hands of dominant people and institutions who respected no safewords. A certain (and dare I say oddly familiar) collective memory of violence against our bodies, along with the somatic experience of a fight-or-flight struggle, is at the cultural root (the “first-wave”) of who and what capital-Q Queer is today. As time went on, subsequent generations brought a “second-wave” queer theory that concerned itself primarily with its own integration within the Ivory Towers of the Academy, the bureaucracy of government, and, most importantly, the morality of the dominating society. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our generation was raised in a cauldron brewing a kind of gay and lesbian respectability politics whose primary objective was convincing straight society that there’s nothing unwholesome, nothing sinful, about “homosexuality.” This was a political effort with a zeal and urgency that lead straight to “marriage equality,” a legally protected LGBT pseudo-ethnicity pioneered by the Unthreatening White Gay Couple Holding Hands At IKEA, and a tacit, quiet, agreement to collectively forget the years of repression, negligence, hatred, and violence that might make “gay rights” feel like a pretty shitty consolation prize if the history were ever remembered in full, rainbow Technicolor.
Never mind that our new legal guardianship “protects” us by appealing to the often direct and even more often systemic violence of the State. Never mind that the “born this way” idiom is an explicit rhetorical appropriation of hundreds of years of struggle by people of color and ethnic minorities brought to this country by the same Powers That Be to which we appealed with our de-fanged, Church-going, Wholesome Queerness Next Door in our so-called “New Civil Rights.” It will certainly not be controversial of me to observe that Queer cultural terrain has been invaded, the space itself abused and strip-mined. Neo-liberal (or should I say neo-conservative, who can tell the difference anymore?) cries of “Drill, Baby, Drill” seem equally fitting for a Republican political rally or a sex-positive orgy in the Castro, and if you actually attend these events, you might even see some of the same people at both.
Perpetuating this watered-down cultural whitewashing of sexualities that threaten the status quo is the explicitly articulated political and legal agenda of the contemporary BDSM subculture, and the sex-positive movement more generally. The BDSM’er crusade to conquer the concept of “the closet” is complete, co-opting and grotesquely mutilating the language of queerness under a strict legalism that, again, draws its illegitimate authority solely through appeals to State-backed violence. It’s a familiar strategy designed to reinforce our forgetting of the intense everyday violence targeting queer folks that ended, like, 5 minutes ago in culture-time—if we (as white queers) can even say it “ended” at all while holding a “straight” face.
Given this reformed landscape, isn’t it worth asking ourselves whether our willingness, and especially our eagerness, to eroticize the symbols of our own abuse is still a significant political challenge to (physical and cultural) queer genocide? After all, what do we make of a world in which the symbols of “liberated” White Middle-Class kinky sex are the same objects and excuses used to murder queer youth of color, only wielded by Mr. Grey? And what does it mean, within the context of our own movement’s political will, when we queers choose, with “fully informed” consent, those very same symbols to be the ones with which we orgasm?
These are not rhetorical questions. There is a complex relationship between the historical trauma imposed upon queer communities by generations of queer bashing, chemical castration, suicide, “corrective” rape, AIDS, youth homelessness, police violence, electroshock “therapy,” etcetera, and our current relationship to eroticized violence. But when confronted with this complicated issue, white queer yuppies will typically spit up their artisanal coffee and then immediately describe in greatly indignant detail all the ways that their oppression-fetishism, whatever it might look like, is okay. Their sex isn’t like all that “other” BDSM! Their flogger is eco-friendly! It was locally-made! They only bottom to women and trans people! They have a (sickeningly liberal) critique of Kink, Inc. too! Doesn’t anyone else find it intriguing that most oppression-fetishists are so hair-trigger defensive about the morality of their sexual behavior that they can never seem to engage with any actual rolequeer inquiries about the meanings and practical implications of that sex? As soon as they get wind of the concept, rather than trying to engage, they spin off into a largely irrelevant tizzy trying to convince everyone their special-snowflake sex isn’t problematic.
But nobody rolequeer cares about your sex life. Seriously. We are not here to police what you do “in the bedroom.” What we care about is your sexual politics—about how you think and feel about what you do in bed (or in your non-sexual intimate relationships, or at school, or at your job-place). The debate here is not about how or if or who you fuck. The question is how you’re interfacing with a political environment that privileges us on the basis of moral purity, that is, on the basis of how “straight” we can make our queerness sound.
Ultimately, while some early Millennials are still riding the Gen X coattails and are mired in the respectability politics of “gay rights,” rolequeers are looking toward a “third wave” queer movement. One that remembers. One that isn’t interested in a consolation prize. One that cares more about what we’re actually experiencing rather than what contracts we’ve signed or policies we’ve had drafted on our behalf. One with a devout curiosity about history but no loyalty to its traditions. As with our kink, as with our notions of consent, rolequeer sexuality politics are a move away from the early 2000’s Social Justice melodrama of victim/abuser/rescuer and towards a divergent politic of complexity and embodiment. Perhaps it’s a return, at least in some ways, to the strongly somatically-embodied politics of first-wave queers.
What we choose to remember from the past is as political as what we choose to do today.