Kink Is About Connection

by Race Bannon on September 20, 2014

This post was originally published in the Bay Area Reporter for which I write a regular leather and kink column. You will find the original online version here.

The topic of this post is something I feel extremely strongly about, and I feel it’s something that we don’t talk enough about in BDSM and kink education. I feel it should be front and center every single time we teach about kink because, without some semblance of love present, the kink is just about going through the motions.

Recently I was scanning the Leather Archives & Museum Tumblr site and I stumbled upon one of their posts that listed Joseph Bean’s Rules of SM (meaning BDSM, to use a more common acronym). This list was originally published many years ago. Joseph Bean is a writer, author and former editor of the now defunct but iconic Drummer Magazine. Drummer is generally considered to have been one of the most influential publications in the entire history of gay men’s leather and kink. Joseph is also a friend who I have long admired.

So, as I was reading Bean’s 10 rules of SM, each one a gem of wisdom, one in particular stood out for me because it reflects what I have often said about what it takes for the best BDSM experiences. His Rule Number 5 is “If you’re not in love, don’t do the scene.” For those unfamiliar with the specifics of BDSM, a scene is what BDSMers call the actual session in which they engage in a BDSM erotic encounter.

Bean then elaborates “If desire and consent do not lead to a kind of love, the scene is probably not going to work. Love can take many forms, but the very ground from which it springs is the demand one places on oneself to please and do what is good for the other person.”

For me, among all the advice that’s doled out about how to do BDSM, this is by far the most important. Yet in classes, articles, books and presentations, it’s the aspect of BDSM that’s discussed the least. Yes, BDSM can be done by the numbers. It can look good. It might even elicit some fun in the absence of love, but I contend it is never as good as when some aspect of love is present.

As Bean mentioned, love can take many forms and be called different things. I’ve often said that the English language needs more words to describe the many variations and permutations of what we clumsily lump together under the single banner of the word love. We have the word like and we have the word love, but that’s not enough. Some kinksters use the word connection instead of love when describing the type of bond that’s necessary for the best BDSM (or any kink really). Whatever word one uses, I agree with Bean that it’s a form of love that sparks our kind of sexuality into a higher realm of experience.

So why do I mention this? Because for many people, especially for outsiders or newcomers to the BDSM and kink styles of erotic play, their first encounters with such play is often outside of a private and intimate context. They might watch some porn that while hot and awesome in its own way, may be a less loving portrayal. Often our most extreme mental fantasies go beyond what we might want to do in real time. They might see a public demonstration of bondage or some form of BDSM or kink play that’s meant to be more entertaining than instructive. They might see various models of such play that do not appear to be what they really are.

I recall one time when I was strolling down the street during Folsom Street Fair and I overheard a group of people as they watched a flogging demonstration underway at one of the fair’s booths. Flogging is the striking of someone with a many-tailed whip, typically made of leather. To the uninitiated, it can look violent and severe. One of the clueless onlookers said something like “I guess you just tie someone up and beat on them and that’s S&M.”

Once at a local San Francisco bar when they were hosting a leather night at which BDSM entertainment was part of the offerings, the one taking place being a rather hard spanking, a number of people in the crowd started screaming “hit him harder, harder!”

I was horrified by these misconceptions and bad impressions being left upon such onlookers. That was the impression being given to these folks? But think about it for a moment. Barring any additional information, why would they not think that? Often someone’s fantasy may appear as something quite different to an outsider. For example, what if you stumbled onto a movie set without noticing any of the lights, cameras or crew? If you then saw two actors fighting angrily with fists flying you would assume you had stumbled onto a real fight. You would have no way of knowing that the fight was not real and was carefully negotiated beforehand. That’s the reaction those who are misinformed about BDSM might have when they hear about or see a BDSM or intense kink situation. They immediately assume the supposed reality in front of them, not the actual fantasy and intimate connection it represents.

It’s important for kinksters to keep this in mind when they decide to display their kink publicly. Every effort should be made to mitigate these wrong impressions when possible. And if such mitigation isn’t possible, then perhaps the kink should remain a private affair and not be offered up as entertainment at all.

I am going to cop to the fact that many kinksters disagree with what I just wrote. Many in the leather, BDSM and kink worlds see nothing whatsoever wrong with BDSM, or any kink, even of the more intense kind, taking place in front of non-kinky or ill-informed folks. I don’t get how they can think that, but many do and I’m sure even among my friends there are those who would argue I’m wrong about this. But I stand by my position.

If you’re reading this and you’re not currently part of the kink world, or you’re a curious newcomer, please keep what I’ve written in mind. What you’re seeing might not be a true representation of what you might end up doing in private. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are all types of love in this world but never the same love twice.” Go forth and love, in whatever kinky way you decide to do so.

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What Is “Real”?

by Race Bannon on August 2, 2014

This post was originally part of a longer article that appeared in the Bay Area Reporter for which I write a regular leather and kink column. You will find the original online version here.

There is a malady that seems to impact some of the leather and kink scene. It creeps in and taints social interactions, play and relationships. It holds people back from having the kind of sex they want. It gives newcomers to the scene yet one more hurdle to jump over in order to enter our world. And while I contend it’s less of an issue here in the Bay Area where we talk more openly and often about kink, it’s still something we deal with too.

What I’m talking about is when people declare who is “real” and who is not. What do I mean by this? Some examples might help.

You see a kinky online hookup site profile stating “only real Dominants need apply.” You hear of a Daddy who declares that a guy isn’t a real boy because he doesn’t conform to the Daddy’s rigid definitions of a boy. You are told that someone can’t possibly be a Master because you heard they like to submit sometimes too. A submissive tells you that a Dominant isn’t real because he didn’t carry out a scene per the submissive’s narrow view of what that interaction should look and feel like. A BDSM educator teaches that earning one’s leathers through some protocol-driven series of steps is the only way one can consider themselves a real BDSM player. A young guy wearing his first piece of gear to an event is declared not a real leatherman by some arrogant bystanders because he’s not worn it properly. The list goes on, and it’s all total crap.

Anytime I hear such nonsense I typically feel that insecurities are to blame. People like to believe that they are the real thing, so they judge others, usually unconsciously, in the hope that this will somehow make their shaky confidence in themselves more solid. Of course it does not. The more we put down others the more we reinforce that which is inside of us that fosters the lack of confidence in the first place. It’s a no win scenario, yet it plays out far too often.

As with so much in life, what is real or not in leather and kink is very much in the eye of the beholder. What might resonate with you as real might not resonate with someone else. Our personal backgrounds, identities, mental erotic landscapes and other things that make us and our life situations unique are far too complex and individual to allow us to declare that one way of being is real and another is not real.

The next time you read or hear someone say that they are a real player, a real Dominant, a real leatherman, or a real whatever, pause for a moment and let it sink in. What is this person really transmitting? What does it say about them that they must elevate themselves at the expense of others? If you are a newcomer to leather and kink and you read or hear such things, take the wise advice a friend of mine used to say all the time. “The red flags are not waiving you in.” Proceed with caution because most seasoned and reasonable kinksters can see through such self-important pronouncements as evidence of insecurity or someone posing as something they really are not.

As the leather and kink scene continues to change and reconfigure, as all things in life do over time, we are all likely to hear about more people who try to label themselves as real while condescendingly stating that others are not. We must resist this tendency if we find ourselves doing it. We must call others out when we read or hear them doing it. If two or more people are being, playing and relating in kinky ways that works for them, and they are all doing so consensually, no one has a right to say that who they are or what they are doing isn’t real. Not me. Not you. No one. You may not find it personally attractive. That is your right. But no one has a right to deem someone else’s erotic identity, play or relationship as less than another. To do so is to harm our scene terribly, and we just can’t stand for that.

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Help Fund Research On Leather/BDSM/Kink

by Race Bannon on June 20, 2014

Richard Sprott, Ph.D., a well known and highly respected member of the academic community, is currently crowdfunding an important research project.

In addition to funding this particular research project, if this funding process goes well, we could easily see this approach used as a model for supporting new research on leather/BDSM/kink in the future.

This crowdfunding campaign is active from June 23 to August 2, 2014.

If you are financially able to assist in funding this research, your contributions are welcome and appreciated. If you can further promote this crowdfunding effort, that would be great also. Feel free to link to this post from anywhere and replicate any of the wording in this post as needed.

This research project involves in-depth interviews about the life histories and identities of kink-identified people.

It seeks to answer such questions as: How do people make sense of kinky fantasies, desires, behaviors and practices? How do they integrate their sexuality into a larger sense of self when that sexuality is stigmatized?

Understanding how people conceptualize and construct their sexual identities will aid efforts to understand the connections between identity formation and behavior, to address stigma and prejudice against alternative sexualities, and to lower health disparities.

Thank for any contributions or promotion you can provide for this project.

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Change Is The Norm

by Race Bannon on May 25, 2014

This post originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter for which I write a regular leather and kink column. You will find the original online version here.

As I communicate with fellow leatherfolk, whether they be local or from elsewhere, I consistently hear comments about how the leather scene has changed. Generally such comments are complaints bemoaning the loss of a past version of the leather scene while decrying how people dress, identify, behave and play today.

“Leather isn’t what it used to be.” “So much of our scene seems to be about contests now.” “We’re losing our bars.” “Those younger kinksters don’t respect the old ways.” “The scene has moved online.” “It seems that you need a degree in kink to be qualified to play these days.” “What happened to our mentors?” “Our community has been diluted with too many people who aren’t really kinky.” “Everything’s so expensive now.” And on and on. I could list dozens of such common complaints. And for all of them I have but one bit of advice.

Accept the ways things are or do something to change it so that they’re more to your liking.

One of the tenets of many life philosophies that I have always gravitated to is the concept of attachment. The belief is that attachment leads to much of life’s suffering. Attachment to an idea, including ideas about the past, are as poisonous as attachment to things. Everything, everyone, every tradition, every society, every subculture is ephemeral. So it is with leather and kink. The sooner an individual accepts that, the happier they’ll be. If you resist accepting change, unhappiness is a foregone conclusion.

I don’t see the morphing and adaptations of what we often refer to as leather to be much different than the organic way any community or subculture evolves. Change is the only constant. It’s why I find it amusing when anyone bemoans “the way it was.” I have too at times I must admit. But there is no way anything can remain fixed in time. That’s just not how things work. Everything changes. As Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

I think a big disconnect occurs because many do think leather is fixed in time. That’s why there’s a continuing churn over traditions, history, protocols and other such things because people want to believe that some golden era of leather in the past was the ideal and that what we have now is not. I disagree. The landscape of today’s leather and kink world is vast, diverse and rich with more experiences, events, social life and play opportunities than ever before. True, it looks and functions differently than it used to. So what? Most of life from the past looks and functions differently today. Many would call it progress. Yet many leatherfolk hold on to the past for dear life as if somehow accepting such realities will lessen them as a leather person or kinkster of whatever stripe.

Today there are certainly intersections among the various kink and leather sexualities, but those intersections might be large or small. The scene is less monolithic than it used to be. I see that as a good thing. And while it’s true that the scene sometimes sends out mixed messages about inclusion when it appears to some to be exclusionary, the same can be said of any group or subculture. I believe our scene is fairly good at embracing all good, decent people who want to be part of what we have to offer.

For every possible negative someone suggests about our scene I can offer an abundant collection of positives or a way to make it more positive for your own individual experience.

If you seek them out, there are social circles, clubs, groups, events and venues that will cater to your individual desires. San Francisco and the surrounding East Bay and South Bay are particularly blessed to have an assortment of such options. Locally and nationally you can find a plethora of offshoot groups interested in BDSM, rubber, sports gear, pup play, cigars, uniforms, fisting, power dynamic (Dominant/submissive) relationships, and much more. These are smaller subcultures within the larger leather and kink umbrella subculture and there’s room for anyone who wants a place at that table.

The natural human tendency is for us to want to feel that we belong to something special. If a subculture morphs over time into a bunch of more diverse groupings that might have only a modest amount of overlap, in time each of those groupings will want to exert their specialness (unconsciously usually) and form their own separate social circles, language, identifiers and so on. So while the term leather meant one thing a few decades ago, it now means something quite different to many. I can’t get too worked up over how it’s changed because I don’t want to be one of those old cranky people ranting about younger people or scene newcomers who don’t “get” leather culture. They get it just fine. It just doesn’t look the same as the leather culture I came out in during the early ’70s. And that’s quite OK.

Now, since I try to get kinky people offline and face to face as much as possible, let me mention a few upcoming events you might want to attend.

The finals for the Bare Chest Calendar will be on April 27, 2014. The calendar has been linked to the leather scene since its inception. Many of the men involved with the calendar, both as calendar men and behind the scenes, are part of the leather scene.

Another big event coming up is International Ms. Leather weekend, April 24-27, 2014. This is the preeminent leather contest and weekend for women. Join women from all over the country as they carry on this tradition in their new host city of San Jose.

The nominees for San Francisco Pride Leather Marshals have been announced. Male nominees are Brent Gannetta, Patrick Mulcahey, Scott Peterson and Graylin Thornton. Female nominees are Beth Bicoastal, Deborah Wade, Tracy Wolf and Lou (Alchemy). Voting takes place May 3, 2014 at the SF Eagle. Congratulations and good luck to all of the nominees.

For more details about the events I’ve mentioned and many others, check out the calendar entries that appear with this column.

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John Embry Leather Hall of Fame Induction Speech

by Race Bannon on April 30, 2014

I delivered this speech on April 27, 2014 to accompany the induction of John Embry, founder of Drummer magazine, into the Leather Hall of Fame at Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend (CLAW) held in Cleveland, Ohio.

Good afternoon. Today we are inducting John Embry into the Leather Hall of Fame. And while Mr. Embry did many good things in his lifetime, if we get honest, the reason he is being inducted today is for his founding of the iconic magazine Drummer. Considering the impact that magazine had on me and countless others, and I contend our entire leather and kink culture, that’s reason enough.

How many people in this room have read a Drummer magazine? Raise your hands. How many people feel that Drummer magazine has directly influenced your leather and kink life? How many people feel that our scene would be significantly different today had Drummer not existed?

Drummer was pivotal in creating a bonded network of men who did not always have a sense of belonging elsewhere in the gay men’s community. The magazine served as a communal forum for often isolated individuals and allowed for existing leather and kink institutions to be more easily identified and accessed. But perhaps most importantly, it generated of common culture and shared language that helped integrate local networks into a more national and international conversation. It gave these men images, stories, information, commentary, products and ideas to jerk off to, to relate to, to identify with, and that served to empower and grow a fledgling network of leathermen.

You can read a much more detailed accounting of John Embry’s life and the lifecycle of Drummer magazine in the program for today’s induction, and I encourage you to do so. But in the interest of brevity, I will focus on a few important insights into John Embry and Drummer magazine.

John Embry was born in Winslow, Arizona in 1926. I and others we unable to uncover much about his childhood. One thing we do know is that he was the art director of his high school newspaper. After high school, at the age of 18, he moved to Los Angeles to attend art school. He joined the armed services in 1949 and following his military service began a career in marketing and advertising. Drummer magazine was in many ways a natural extension of that marketing and advertising career.

You can read in his bio in the program some of the presumed initial origins of Drummer magazine, but it’s best to get it directly from Embry’s mouth. In issue 188 of Drummer magazine John Embry penned an article about Drummer’s origins. In that article he said:

“Unlike popular conceptions, Drummer was not born like something in an Andy Hardy movie, with lots of enthusiasm and offers of Judy Garland’s garage for a theater. It wasn’t even like Shel Silverstein’s wonderful concept of Playboy’s beginning with all the fellas standing around the steps of a Chicago brownstone deciding who was going to be the editor, the art director and who would recruit the centerfolds.”

“Drummer was conceived in Los Angeles on a Saturday morning in 1975 when my lover Don was out on one of his interminable disappearances. It was a solitary, if not immaculate, conception in the form of an ad in the Leather Fraternity newsletter I was putting together. The publication was already running eight to twelve pages. Why not embellish it and make it some sort of small magazine? What the hell, I had always been a frustrated publisher. So I pasted together a half-page pitch for something christened Drummer with little, if any, idea what it would or should look like.”

Perhaps the original intent of Drummer was not well thought out, but the happy accident was its critical role in the creation of an international leather, BDSM and kink community.

As the result of that perhaps less than immaculate conception, the first Drummer came off the press on June 23, 1975.

The name of the magazine, Drummer, is a reference to a quote from the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which happens to be my favorite book of all time. The quote is “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

Embry did indeed hear a different drummer, and he also did indeed step to the music that he heard. He was a unique and, perhaps unconsciously at times, a visionary man.

When Embry was asked what made him want to be a publisher, he said “Inborn, I guess. I can remember as a schoolboy putting out a four-pager in grammar school by the simple method of drawing (in pencil, they didn’t trust us with pen and ink yet) and typing each copy by hand. It was simple and direct and my friend Conrad and I would spend hours in the evening on the finished product, such as it was. That’s all he and I did those evenings, unfortunately. But you’re pretty young when you’re in elementary school. Then Conrad got his little hands on a discarded hectograph, known as a Ditto gelatin roll that did an amazing thing: it made copies. I knew how Gutenberg must have felt!”

So even in grammar school, and we know in high school, Embry’s path toward becoming a publisher was already underway.

Embry saw Drummer magazine in many ways as a publication of liberation. He had a history of wanting to liberate the gay men’s community and did a great deal in that regard, which again you can read about in detail in the bio in the program, and he saw Drummer magazine as no different. It was a vehicle of liberation for gay men who had sexualities and identities that did not sync with the mainstream of gay male life.

Of course, not everyone held the magazine in high regard, at least initially. When a prominent San Francisco BDSM and kink organization reviewed Drummer in its newsletter, they said “Drummer is a Bummer, too slick, too commercial.” Luckily, thousands upon thousands of leathermen felt differently and they embraced Drummer as their publication of record. Their source of erotic inspiration. The template from which they built entire erotic and social lives.

This theme of liberation was well illustrated when Embry was asked what sort of satisfaction the publishing of Drummer brought him. He said “A tremendous amount, sometimes in very personal ways. We constantly get mail from guys who say how Drummer has helped them come to terms with their sexuality and their lives. I particularly like to hear from someone who found that he shares a specific sexual identity or fetish that other men enjoy – and that through Drummer they have learned to explore the possibilities of their sexual, physical and emotional selves. In a way that is what they are saying when they write to us that Drummer is ‘a turn on.’”

Embry also echoed the theme of liberation when asked why publishing Drummer was so deeply satisfying and important to him. He said “The most gratifying correspondence came from readers across the U.S. who had long considered themselves the only queer in town with their particular fetish. When they discovered themselves in Drummer they knew they were far from alone, wherever they lived.”

That encapsulates the power and importance of Drummer magazine in our lives, and why John Embry so richly deserves his place in the Leather Hall of Fame.

We might not all be here today were it not for John Embry and his Drummer magazine. We most certainly would not have so readily adopted its imagery and messaging as the foundation upon which many of us constructed our erotic dress, identities, sexualities and social norms.

We all owe a huge thanks to John Embry and every single person involved in the creation and publication of Drummer magazine. So it is a true honor to be able to say today that John Embry has now been inducted into the Leather Hall of Fame.

Mr. Embry, the universe decided to take you from us in September of 2010, but you, and your important work, have not been forgotten. All of us owe you a huge collective thanks.

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Polyamory As Orientation?

by Race Bannon on March 7, 2014

In a recent article in Modern Poly written by Saul-of-Hearts, a writer, musician and videographer based in Los Angeles and Portland, the idea that polyamory is an orientation, at least for the writer, was put forth. I posted the article titled “Polyamory As Orientation (And Why It Works For Me)” on Facebook and asked my online friends this question: “So what do you think? Is it similar to an orientation or not?”

The range of answers I got was interesting as discussions regarding polyamory often are, especially with my online friends who range from actively polyamorous to staunchly monogamous and everything in between. But one comment stood out and resonated with me the moment I read it. A friend offered this:

The writer assumes that all humans are not naturally capable of a romantic relationship with more than one individual. I don’t like the term poly. Most research into modern hunter/gatherer societies has shown that monogamy is a modern phenomenon and socially constructed for the purposes of property management and inheritance.

Monogamy isn’t an orientation, it’s conditioning.

Poly isn’t an orientation. It is our natural state.

This rings true for me. I also think being poly is our natural state and that monogamy has been imposed upon us by social conditioning. If you read heralded books like Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, they offer the same conclusion. Of course, this position is controversial for many.

But for those of us who identify as poly and who live a poly life now, or have aspirations to do so, I think adopting the mindset that being poly is a natural state while monogamy is not would serve us well. However, the only caution I would offer is that this stance should not denigrate the decision that some will make to configure their relationships in a monogamous fashion. Just because we might put forth the notion that poly is a natural state does not mean that someone’s choice to be monogamous is wrong or counter to nature, especially if that decision is truly made for reasons that work for the individuals involved and are not the result of social conditioning that makes those people miserable as they try to conform. Poly folks must always value the monogamous among us even as we live our lives in a different fashion. Diversity is the norm and therefore that means that people will decide to configure their relationships in diverse ways also. It’s all good.

With all that said, I guess the most accurate statement I can make is that poly is natural for many people. I contend it’s natural for most people, but the real point I want to make is that it’s most certainly just as natural as monogamy is and perhaps, if social conditioning weren’t a factor, might indeed by the more prevalent form of how we do relationships.

So while I don’t think of myself being polyamorous as an orientation, I do embrace the notion that my poly life is indeed a natural state. It’s certainly more natural for me than monogamy, both in terms of my sexuality and how I bond with others.

Let me know your thoughts about this by posting a comment.

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David Ortmann Interview

by Race Bannon on February 27, 2014

Every so often I run across a great interview with someone representing some aspect of the kink, BDSM, leather, alternative sexualities, polyamory or some other segment of the world encompassed by this blog’s focus. I just ran across one. I think it’s important to promote such interviews because it presents an entire body of kinksters so well.

David Ortmann was interviewed by David Perry on Perry’s show recently and I think it’s one of the best interviews I’ve seen lately on the topic of kink and BDSM. Ortmann is articulate, savvy and presents a side of our scene that I think lands nicely on the eyes and ears of newcomers and those who might not relate to the more stereotypical leather-clad or geared-up imagery so often put front and center when our scene is discussed.

Ortmann authored the book Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexualities and Communities along with co-author Richard Sprott. I also recommend their book highly. Check out the video and share it with your friends.

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Serious Academic BDSM Research

by Race Bannon on February 21, 2014

Whenever a segment of society has to deal with any oppression or societal misunderstandings, as those who practice BDSM must sometimes endure, one of the tools that can be used to blunt such negative perceptions is serious academic research on the topic.

I recently read about interesting study results regarding how BDSM experiences can lead to an altered state of consciousness, mirroring what some see as meditative states. If you’re interested in this research, I suggest you read The New Yoga? Sadomasochism Leads to Altered States, Study Finds published on the LiveScience site.

Those involved in BDSM are sometimes surprised to learn that academic research is taking place about this topic, but there has been and continue to be a number of such research projects undertaken in academic settings. The results of these studies are important. In many instances such research supports what most of us already know, that if practiced responsibility BDSM is a completely healthy expression of our sexuality. Such research findings can also bring about changes in how psychological or medical care is approached or in certain court legal proceedings.

I am aware of two important organizations that are currently doing their part to foster such research.

One is Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (often referred to as CARAS). I sit on their Board and their mission is to support and promote excellence in the study of alternative sexualities and the dissemination of research results to the alternative sexualities communities, the public and the research community. Check out their site and please consider joining the organization (click the Join button). Your membership will help support this important research. If you don’t want to join, CARAS welcomes donations as well (click the Donate button).

Another organization, The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance (often referred to as TASHRA), is a newer organization seeking to improve the physical and mental health of people who engage in BDSM, kink and sexual fetishism. They want to create a world where all kinksters have equal access to culturally competent, non-judgmental and knowledgeable healthcare. I sit on the Community Research Advisory Board for this organization and am excited about its mission. The best way to support TASHRA’s mission right now is to donate to them (click the Donate button on their site).

There are certainly other groups that are trying to foster this sort of research, but these two organizations appear to be the only ones focused entirely on such research that encompasses a wide cross-section of the BDSM and kink worlds.

It’s really important to support the important work these two organizations undertake. It is only by providing factual results from rigorous research that BDSM will be treated as simply another of many avenues of valid and healthy sexual expression.

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San Francisco Bay Area Reporter Leather Column

by Race Bannon on February 3, 2014

I am the new writer of the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter (often called the B.A.R.) leather column. The column has a long history in the local leather and kink scene and it’s read nationally and internationally as well. I’m honored to have been asked to take over this column from the previous writer who decided to step away for personal reasons.

Here’s the link to the first column I wrote. The column is published every other week. So check back on my blog for links to my columns, or visit the B.A.R. site and look at the BARtab section for my column.

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Let’s Focus On What’s Important

by Race Bannon on January 26, 2014

This speech was delivered on January 26, 2014 as the Sunday brunch keynote address at the Southwest Leather Conference conference held in Phoenix, AZ. Here is a link to the audio recording of the speech on Leatherati.

Good afternoon. For those of you I have not yet encountered in person this weekend, let me offer my rather late welcome to this conference. I hope you’ve been having a great time. I certainly have.

I would like to thank all of the organizers and volunteers at this conference with a special thanks to Joseph for asking me to be here this year. And thanks to everyone in attendance, all of you, for taking the time out of your weekend to listen to what I have to say. I truly do appreciate it. Thank you.

For those who might wonder, I believe brevity is a virtue. So I promise I will not make you sit attentively for too long.

As some background on this speech, I want you to know that as I was writing the first version of this speech, I suddenly realized that I had something else to say and I scrapped that speech. Almost in its entirety. There are snippets of the original speech left intact. But what you’re about to hear is an amalgam of a bit of what I had wanted to say and, mostly, what I realized I truly needed to say here today. I mention this because I want you to realize how important I think this message is.

Anyone who has listened to the speeches I’ve delivered over the past couple of decades knows that they often reflect my activist, education or leadership leanings. However, today I’d like to take all of those hats off and simply speak to you as a fellow kinkster.

When I come to conferences like this the topics discussed typically drift toward educating our own, organizing events, providing leadership within clubs and organizations, hosting parties, securing our erotic freedoms, and other such truly worthwhile endeavors. But there is too often something lacking, something missing. There is a piece of the puzzle, an important piece, the most important piece, we seem to sometimes neglect.

Too often we seem to forget that we all do this stuff that we do for one ultimate purpose – so that we can bond, connect and play with others of like mind. We tend to forget that the connections and relationships we create and foster are really why we’re here. It’s about the connections. It’s about the relationships. It’s about the play. It’s about enjoying our individual erotic identities even as we celebrate them communally. Everything else we do must support those things or our efforts are way off the mark. At least that’s the assumption I operate under.

I think at times we all, myself included, suffer from what I refer to as groupthink. As we gather at events like this one and as we communicate with each other virtually or at gatherings elsewhere, or we read or view what others have to say, a phenomenon occurs that was less prevalent many years ago when we would all typically be more independent players and gatherings were a bit more ad hoc and infrequent. We begin to think alike. We begin to agree on certain norms. We begin to categorize. We begin to judge. We become self-righteous at times. We begin to compare ourselves to others. We begin to construct rigidity where there was once flexibility.

This all leads to what I’ve called groupthink and I fear that often this groupthink perspective damages why we’re all here in the first place.

Now please do not take offense if you work hard on some aspects of education, organizing, leadership, or some other nuts and bolts activity that supports our scene. Kudos to you if you do those things. I do those things also. My position today in no way negates those efforts. But I do hope that what I’m saying here today brings some focus to why we do those things. And for those among you who may not be involved in the scene’s inner workings and are here to simply have some fun and learn, perhaps it might bring some clarity to your own kink pursuits as well.

One of the things I try to do is to constantly strive to deduce life to its most basic ideas and propositions, to arrive at certain foundation principles that serve me well. Many of the world’s thinkers have done the same and have their own list of such universal foundation principles. It is these foundation principles that provide the overarching truths upon which we hang much of what we consider to be good and correct in our society, and that includes our own kinky subculture.

The two foundation principles I want to talk about today are uniqueness and change, with another word for uniqueness I’ll use sometimes being individuality. There are many such foundation principles of life, but I focus on these two today because I think they are fundamental to who we are as kinksters as well as at the core of what’s both good and bad about our scene, individually and collectively.

I sit in classes. I attend contests. I listen to speeches like this one. I participate in discussion groups. I work with organizations. And more such activities of course. And as I do these things it consistently hits me that we are often going through many motions that don’t always serve my true, deep needs or what I see as the needs of others like me.

I don’t think our scene is particularly different than any other segment of society. I really don’t. As a subculture like ours grows and matures it is perhaps inevitable that our actions and intents veer off course as we get caught up in the trappings and processes and habits that, for whatever reason, become comfortable and commonplace. But I’m an optimist and I think we can do better. And as a kinkster, I must believe I can do better.

I watch a contest, sometimes even as a judge, and wonder to myself in exactly what way does this serve my fellow kinksters and might it even perhaps send some wrong messages. I sit in a kink education classroom as I’m witnessing some terribly complex BDSM technique or a recitation of someone’s particularly rigid approach to play or relationships and wonder if the newcomers in the room with me are perhaps dangerously absorbing the rigidity and often misguided information they are being fed. In the many club and organization meetings I’ve attended I consistently witness in-fighting, maneuverings for power and strained processes for their own sake and realize all that is taking place before me serves their intended audience very little if at all. I sit and listen to a newcomer’s story of entrance into the scene and cringe at some of the useless and often damaging things they’ve been told are the gospel truth with no room for variation and I want to cry because I know this person’s story is likely replicated in countless people’s own story.

At these moments I’ve mentioned, and many others, when I observe or hear or read something in our scene that might serve those engaged in it, but not serve or might even damage the experience of the bulk of other kinksters, I am sad, and they happen far too frequently for my own comfort level.

Now, am I saying this always happens? No, I am not. I do meander through our scene and also experience vast joy and wonder brought about by people, organizations, projects and gatherings that serve their constituency in powerful and meaningful ways and by people individually living meaningful and authentic kinkster lives. But I fear that I don’t experience that nearly enough. Maybe I never can experience it enough. It’s that special to me. I know we live in a world of imperfection, but my instincts consistently nudge me to try and make things better, and to live a better kinky life personally.

In regards to us categorizing, judging and becoming self-righteous, language is often the culprit that spawns such perspectives. Language is always imprecise. All we can hope to do with language is approach precision. Yet we bandy about words and phrases and mantras as though they are always precise.

We use a variety of labels such as Old Guard, New Guard, TNGs, dominant and submissive, Master or Mistress and slave, handler and pup, Sir and boy, top, bottom and switch, gearpig, and on and on. None of these terms are truly precise. They only approach precision. Due to everyone’s uniqueness, their individuality, and their specific situation, they can’t possibly be an exact description of anyone or any situation. Yet we use those words to describe others, and even worse, ourselves, as though they are precise descriptions.

Adding to the language, the rules and processes we often talk about such as protocol, traditions, honoring elders, leveraging mentors, earning one’s leathers, valuing experience, standing by safety guidelines, encouraging certain levels of often unrealistic technique and skill requirements, and so on. Again, none of these are truly precise. And quite frankly, many of them are based more on mythology, ego or opinion than they are on fact.

And we violate the principle of uniqueness not only with individual people, but with the way people identify, play or configure their relationships. How often have we each heard, for example, that “this” is how a Master/slave relationship should look or “that” is a “real” player or some other such pontificating hogwash.

What we often neglect in this mix of judgmentalism, categorizations, self-righteousness, language and rules is the individual, the unique individual, and their unique situations. Our scene is made up of thousands upon thousands of individuals, like you. And like flowers or mountains or snowflakes, none of them are alike. None of you are alike. None. Not one. Of that I am quite certain.

In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Words, Little Red Riding Hood says “The prettier the flower, the farther from the path.” I agree with Little Red Riding Hood. I do not reserve my highest admirations for those among us who hold the party line on garb, roles, rules, protocols, sexualities, memberships, and so on, but rather for those among us who stray from the path to find their own unique ways. They are the brave ones. They are the ones we should be following. They are the ones who allow their own internal kink compass to guide them rather than look to externals to validate how it is they should be or act. They are the rebels. They are the mavericks. They are the ones who fully understand that a scene based on an alternative view of sexuality, identity and erotic relationships must worship at the altar of the individual, not the conformist. It’s easy to conform. It’s difficult and brave to be an individual. I encourage you all to be individuals.

When it comes to individuality, we often give lip service to honoring it. We say we’re all unique. We say we’re all individuals. But then turn right around and tell folks there are only certain ways to act, certain ways to dress, certain ways to play, certain ways to be a Master, Dom, sub or polyamorist, or whatever. We in the kink scene are guilty of this a lot. Myself included at times.

Adding to the complexity of our uniqueness, our individuality, is that we change as people over time. We have to realize that a person’s uniqueness is an ever evolving thing. It’s just the way it is. We change professional interests. Social interests. Circles of friends. Topics we like to study. Hobbies. All sorts of things. Over time as we grow as human beings, we evolve, we change. And if we change in all those ways, why should we not also change as kinksters. And if we change as kinksters, should not the scene we manifest around us change also? If we’re not changing, we’re stagnating. I encourage you to embrace, not resist, change.

So when we play our special ways or identify as a certain type of kinkster or enter into nontraditional relationship configurations, we are doing so at a specific point in time at which we are exactly who we are for but a brief moment. You will wake up tomorrow not being exactly the same person you are today, not being the same kinkster you are today. And that is the same for everyone else in our scene.

And this leads me to the heart of why some of us resist embracing individuality in favor of conformity. The second of those foundation life principles I’ve already been alluding to. Change.

Let’s all do a thought exercise for a moment. Close your eyes for a few seconds and imagine yourself in a time long long ago. That time before the internet. Let’s go back further to a time before we had kinky publications catering to our kind. Back further to before we had clubs and organizations within which we could gather. Now open your eyes.

Take note that in the grand scheme of the modern timeline, where you just went was not so far back in history. When you do this thought exercise and go back far enough, eventually you reach a time in the not too distant past where there were no organized leather or kink communities. Everyone was essentially a soloist, an individual sexual maverick desperately trying to get their needs met in whatever way they could, essentially seeking out people, experiences and knowledge on their own. Thus, there really were no traditions, rules, protocols and labels such as the ones we now look to when we seek to codify ourselves, others and this scene of ours.

So, if we can go back not all that far in history, and realize how kinky life has changed so dramatically since then, how can we say to anyone with a straight face that things should remain as they are? That things should not change?

The glaring ridiculousness of such a statement should be obvious, but evidently it’s not so obvious to some. Barring any acts that are lacking in respect for others or the safety of others, if anyone ever tells you to do something that does not sync with your own way of being a kinkster, especially if they preface it by saying “well, that’s tradition” or “that’s just how it’s done,” don’t accept it at face value. Challenge that notion. Be your own person. Embrace the growth and change in yourself and the scene that you and countless others like you manifest around you. The scene is just as much yours as anyone else’s, no matter what someone might say.

As the old Zen saying goes, the tree that bends in the wind survives, the tree that resists snaps and dies. So it is with both our own individual erotic lives and with the larger kink scene. If we adapt and go with the flow, we’ll thrive. If we resist and stubbornly cling to more conservative ways, we’ll cease to exist as a viable subculture. Or at least as a happy and fulfilled subculture.

So, why am I driving home the uniqueness and change messages today? Because I feel that our violation of these two principles of life are the root cause of what is often wrong with our scene. And our scene is too fucking wonderful and magical to not see it continue to thrive and improve. And let me say again, there is definitely a lot good about our scene. I contend far more good than bad actually. But that doesn’t mean we can’t focus on eliminating the bad.

I drive home this message because I have seen countless contestants in contests answering judge’s questions with what they believed the judges wanted to hear rather than the truth and presenting an image to win rather than an authentic version of themselves. Do we really want to place inauthenticity, violating the natural order of uniqueness and change, on a pedestal?

I drive home this message because I have answered one too many emails, phone calls or messages from a disheartened newcomer who has had their dreams and sexuality crushed because they were told in no uncertain terms they were doing it wrong, when they were doing it just fine all along.

I drive home this message because I too often sit in a kink education session and think to myself that the rigidity of the teaching style, information or opinion being disseminated is at that very moment squelching the full expression of sexuality and identity of someone else in that room.

I drive home the message because I hear a constant drone of complaints about how our scene isn’t like it used to be (which of course is what change is all about), yet people are so stuck in their rigid views and habits that finding creative solutions to invigorate our scene seem lacking.

So, I promised I would not make you sit for too long and I won’t. I’m going to begin to wrap up by saying to each and every one of you – be your own person, be uniquely you, embrace change, in yourself, in others and in the overall scene. To be anything other than yourself will prove to be less than fulfilling. To resist change is to be left behind in a scene that once was rather than a scene that is in the here and now.

Finally, let me end with some quotes. People who know me know I love my quotes. I find that good quotes encapsulate so much in a few words.

The first is by Kevin Hall who wrote a book titled Aspire. He wrote “No matter how alike we might appear, based on our race, ideology, where we live, what political party we belong to, or how we wear our hair – if we have hair – each of us is truly one of a kind. Over six billion people are on the earth, yet not one of us has the same fingerprints, or footprints, or even laugh. Every individual is authentic. Every person is an unrepeatable miracle.”

I contend that every person in our leather and kink scene, every one of you, is an unrepeatable miracle. Celebrate that and help everyone you meet understand that about themselves. As Frank Zappa said “Without deviations from the norm, progress is not possible.”

And if anyone ever tells you that who you are or what you’re doing isn’t normal, by our scene’s standards, remember what Stockard Channing said in the movie Practical Magic, “Being normal isn’t necessarily a virtue. . .it rather denotes a lack of courage.” So be courageous.

There is an old Chinese proverb that states “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” Let’s build windmills. Let’s tear down the walls. Let’s embrace the change that is inevitable anyway no matter how much we may try to resist it. The changes that will take place in you and in others, and the changes that will take place in the scene overall, are completely and totally natural. In fact, as Robert Redford once said “Change is the only thing that succeeds.”

If you are experiencing changes in yourself and you sense an internal resistance to those changes, check whether you are resisting those changes because of your own values, or someone else’s. Living up to someone else’s values rather than your own is a sure recipe for unhappiness. Unhappiness as a person and unhappiness as a kinkster.

Let me offer one final quote because it’s become one of my favorites. Morticia Addams of Addams Family fame once said “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”

Embrace the chaos that are your own internal changes because it is the only path to a fulfilling and happy kinkster life. Embrace the chaos that are the changes that take place in the greater overall scene. It’s also the only path to true happiness as a kinkster.

Love each other. Be kind to each other. Connect and bond with each other. Have sex and play with each other. And most importantly, be the kind of kinky person you want to be. And never let anyone tell you what that’s supposed to be because they don’t know you nearly as well as you know yourself.

Thank you for your time. I love you all and wish you a happy, healthy and kinky life. Which is exactly what you deserve. Good afternoon.

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