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June 19, 2012

Are Our Educational Efforts Backfiring?

Last night I attended a wonderful birthday dinner with a few amazing, and I think brilliant, fellow kinksters and the topic of education and outreach came up. It once again sparked some of my concerns.

One of the contemporary common themes throughout the organized kink networks, especially among BDSM practitioners, is the need for education within our ranks. Along with that theme is the newer effort to do outreach education to those outside of the networks to bring them into the fold. And then there’s the education of the general public. I think some of these efforts are backfiring.

First, education within our ranks and how we do that education.

As I’ve mentioned before in this post, I think perhaps we are over-educating ourselves to the point where even the most seasoned of players are starting to get the impression that if they aren’t forever adding to their set of play skills they are somehow not meeting up to the standards the community is setting. Such efforts amounts to us shooting ourselves in the foot. We are fostering a sense among many that BDSM and the range of kink is just about skills and, at times, what essentially amounts to fancy parlor tricks, to continually up the ante in terms of variety and extremes of play. This does not sync with the average kinkster’s daily experience or needs.

I think the number of classes, workshops and panels has reached the point where it’s overkill. We simply don’t need this many. I’ve heard more times than I can count that many people have reached the point where they only attend such events because they are socializing opportunities with other kinksters, but is a class really a good socializing opportunity? No. Why not reduce the number of those classes and get creative with fostering more in-person socializing opportunities in their place, something we desperately need as our physical meeting spaces dwindle and our virtual connections increase.

Most kinky folks have a very specific set of desires and needs for their kinky and erotic play. Typically they’re pretty simple and basic. They don’t need to see one more of the thousands of ways to do scene X or Y. What they mostly need are insights and support on how to best meet, bond, connect and navigate within the BDSM and other kinky subcultures. Let’s reduce the number of skills classes and figure out ways to give kinksters what they really need most.

The educational model that’s been adopted is also becoming an outdated one. The typical kinky class uses the standard industrial model of pushing out “education” in the form of lecture and demonstration. Education research has consistently shown this is a lousy way to learn most things. Informal learning, mentored learning, project-based learning, team learning, leveraging recorded e-learning and other more innovative and effective ways of teaching should be employed if the goal is actually to educate kinksters rather than simply give them yet another voyeuristic opportunity to view a type of play many of them will never bother exploring anyway.

We’ve wholeheartedly adopted the standard business conference model for many of our educational events and I think at times this has proven a negative rather than a positive. What we do is not always so easily presented in such a format. What we do is more about interpersonal connection than it is about information and skills. Shouldn’t our big gatherings be figuring out how to foster this rather than pushing out the same, often regurgitated, information and skill set many of the attendees have seen many times prior? Why not create learning play parties with an interactive and mentored approach? Why not foster socializing settings where kinksters feel empowered to share knowledge, insights and experiences with each other as learning and growth mechanisms. Why do we feel obligated to pack educational tracks so full that it becomes a challenge to attend what one wants to attend at such events? Kinky folks tend to be a creative bunch. Why aren’t we leveraging that creativity to come up with new socializing and educational events rather than offering up yet one more cookie cutter, templated version of the same event. We’re better than that, and we’re not really serving the needs of the community by rigidly sticking to old models.

Instructors at events are rarely vetted at all. Often they are invited to teach based entirely on their longevity in the scene, their star status or some other criteria other than demonstrating the ability to teach (not everyone can), their knowledge, the solidity of their reputation, and so on. I have far too often seen people schedule an instructor simply because they have a time slot to fill rather than because the instructor rises to the level of providing true value to those in attendance. Let’s vet our instructors better. Yes, this takes work. Yes, this will annoy some people who think their star status entitles them to be instructors. So be it. The scene will be better for it.

Second, education as outreach to bring people into the kinkster networks.

I see “educational” scene demonstration events take place at public venues that concern me. Do we really want the average person witnessing a complex and nuanced BDSM or kinky scene? The general public has no context in which to place what they see. Even those who might be kinky curious can actually be turned off and discouraged by witnessing such play before they’re ready to fully understand it within the overall context of that particular kinky subculture.

An argument that’s often made is that such public displays bring new people into the kinky scene. I disagree. I don’t think it generally does. I think it often amounts to a side show carnival for the viewers and an exhibitionistic opportunity for the players. Nothing more. I don’t think much education actually takes place. I think it’s far more important to provide venues in which interested people can come, learn and explore in a controlled and secure environment.

Some say we want to make it easy for newcomers to come into the scene. Sure we do, on some level. But to spoon feed the general public kinky scenes done outside of an understandable context doesn’t do that. Make educational, learning and support opportunities known to the public. Absolutely. But if someone doesn’t have the motivation and drive to expend at least the effort it takes to show up at a more private, controlled event, do we really want them in the scene in the first place? Does this not encourage the casual dabbler while discouraging the more engaged players? What value does this bring to the overall community?

Finally, our educational outreach to the general public.

The general public does not need to know the specifics of what kinky folks do. They just don’t. All we want from the general public is a basic understanding of what we do and why we do it, and to make dialogue and awareness prevalent enough so that kinksters can do what they do undisturbed. That’s it. We really don’t need anything else from the general public and to ask for any more is to invite problems that don’t need to occur.

I know much of what I’ve said here is controversial. I know many within our ranks have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for the educational efforts as they’ve developed over the past two decades or so. And what I’ve offered here is not meant to suggest that we don’t need education. We absolutely do. I have championed and participated in countless educational events over the years and support them, but perhaps even I’m culpable in fostering some of the missteps I see in such efforts today. My current opinion is that we likely need a major rethink in this area.

I welcome your comments and thoughts on this topic. It’s something that needs to be discussed.

47 Comments on “Are Our Educational Efforts Backfiring?

Jere Douglas
June 19, 2012 at 11:08 am

Sir, glad this converstaion is beginning. I am a bit put off by the numbers that are doing demonstrations and lectures that are very new to the scene and are not even promoting safe, sane and consensual play. Usually,here in Houston, these events and play take place in a bar setting with a lot of cocktail parties and heavy amounts of alcohol consumed. I will not, as a seasoned player even allow these people to touch me and it does become frustrating.
I do feel another direction is called for stemming from responsibilities,both perosnal and kinkster community as the movement here is to become more homogenized with the other vanilla organizations in the community and in the city/state.

Bob
June 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

My exposure to BDSM and Kink education is quite limited, but overall I have to agree with your general position. 1) I couldn’t agree more that my kink needs are actually rather uncomplicated. So I would be put off by overly-complex and overly-orchestrated educational events. 2) I actually know my kink and desire more social events; not educational events. 3) As a learning professional, all of your points are dead-on. Education has become so overly orchestrated because too many without any real understanding of how people learn are in charge. This is true from primary education to special interest education. What we see is a recipe that calls for telling people what to do, and then expecting comprehension. This just isn’t how adults learn; something that we all know about ourselves, but tend not to transfer to others. Additionally, common in this recipe is to have an expert come into teach, as you highlighted. I truly agree that being an expert does not equate to being an effective teacher. A better formula is to match experts with effective teachers for a truly impactful learning experience.

Tamara Pincus
June 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I think one of the things that gets ignored in kink education is how to manage the relationships. There are a variety of emotional and relationship issues that come up in relationships with uneven power dynamics and in poly relationships which are not addressed. Not managing the relationships well poses a big threat to the community and the individuals in it. Another idea a fellow kink friendly therapist friend of mine came up with was having classes on emotional first aid for when scenes go wrong. I have been through bad scene experiences where the top didn’t have the sense to hold me afterwards I can say, really, people should know better. (not that everyone needs to be held, but a good top needs the sense to ask)

On public demos I have a bit of a bias at the moment. Artemis Hunter did a demo as a part of her class at AASECT (sex educators and therapists conference). I was the demo bottom. A lot of the therapists there stated that the demo helped them understand bdsm in a way they hadn’t before. Some of them did demonstrate a newfound interest in kink. The scene was very short and showcased only the most basic of bdsm techniques but it did show how pain can be erotic and I think people found that helpful.

Jeff Hettinger
June 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Hi Race

i really enjoyed your article. i felt it well thought out and quite insightful.

Having been in the BDSM community for some time now i have seen and heard and watched many of the scenarios the you so eloquently describe.

My beginnings were in NY where BDSM was taught and demonstrated by GMSMA. They at first created parties where the demos were just happening and if you chose to get you own scene going then you were allowed some spaces. Spaces were usually given to demos first but there was always room for more. This always lead to an interesting and enjoyable atmosphere in with to watch, ask questions (encouraged), and learn interactions between the scenes participants. i personally gained a tot of insight through this form and it was a social outlet as well. You watch a scene and the Hot top next to you says want to try? Yes!!

The sad part of this is that as GMSMA grew and changed they became less and less sexpositive. Now come the lectures and corporate model you speak of. This quickly sapped the air of any sexuality even though the demonstrators were showing and teaching some very important aspects of BDSM safety and technique, there was no sexual or intimate context as part of the lecture demo. Lost was the importance of the power exchange and the intimacy the is truly required by these wonderfully extreme acts of sexual expression.

On the other hand (i’ll take the pun) NY Bondage club catered to men who had an interest in bondage. The club meetings always started with a circle in which you could declare your interests i.e.: Top, bottom, Watching, learning the ropes, etc… This gave the group an opportunity to connect and find a mentor or a possible scene partner, if you hadn’t already made a date. The atmosphere was usually bondage centric but the SM qualities showed up here and there. They have kept this model until recent when they abandoned the circle and let the doors stay open all evening. The atmosphere is very basic and there are more and more heavy players showing. As well there is an awesome influx of new young and highly interested guys, bring in new blood and and excitement that i sometimes find missing in a party where all of the guys are seasoned players. i see this sometimes as a lost opportunity for mentoring and growing the community with knowledgeable players.

All in all i agree with you assessment and i just wanted to share some stories to support. The NY Bondage Club has done a great job bridging the experienced and inexperienced. Something that we need more of here in SF i think. Sometimes there are too many barriers for younger inexperienced players to find there way into a play party where they may learn and still be turned on.

Hugs

Arturo Salazar
June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Race,

Thanks for bringing up this subject; it needs to be discussed. I agree with most of what you say, so, there is no point in re-stating that. But I disagree with one or two points you make and I want to comment on these:

You say we need to vet the instructors of bdsm seminars, etc. I agree that there are examples of inadequate, some maybe even potentially dangerous, instruction. A friend I have mentored recently attended a DM training. My schedule didn’t permit me to join him, but I was appalled at what he said about the training, mostly about what it failed to cover. However, who is going to vet the vetters? Since I haven’t been in the mainstream of things lately, I probably wouldn’t be vetted. Yet, I feel I have plenty to offer regarding dungeon safety from my experience including DM’ing at The 15 and Inferno. Yes, there is a problem, but I seriously doubt that more structure woud fix it. We need to put on our thinking caps; structure is more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Like in the rest of my life, both personal and professional, in bdsm, my real education owes little to classroom or equivalent experiences. Rather, it comes from being willing and interested in learning, observing others play at play events, conversing with people I learned to respect, and my own play experience. Yes, formal demos and instruction are important, maybe even essential, but certainly far from sufficient. I think the ancient greek model of education, however inefficient, is best and most effective: little or no structure, few or no titles, and little or no formality. I don’t think the structure can be fixed. Rather, I think we need to realize the value of one on one to few on few informal settings and rely much more on that. Inefficient and nearly impossible to measure, but effectiveness and real personal connections are far more important.

Joe
June 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Race,
i’ve been around this community for a number of years and i’ve seen alot of things come and go much to the detriment of the community. Yes i feel that classes and such are a good thing, but like you i feel that we are over educated. i do not feel that one needs to go to a class to be a Master or a slave and get a certificate saying they are one. i was once told that a man should not be a Master till they have Mastered themselves and that is true. Also i remember a time when a person was good at one thing it was their passion if you wanted to learn flogging there were always a number of men who were out there who could teach. For me i’d rather play with someone who had passion for a scene than someone who is a “Jack of all trades” even as a boy/slave etc it is good to have a passion for a certain type of session. On to the social aspect we are in a time that our social spaces are leaving us and we as a community need to figure out what our next step is, i sometimes think that what we need is an old fashioned “Run” like the leather clubs used to do and still do. i always had a good time at those things. Just something to think about.

Queen Cougar
June 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Race,
I suppose I should not be shocked in discovering that we share a similar opinion on so many of the issues you covered in this piece. You have always impressed me with your level head and common sense way of communicating. Even though the argument can certainly be made that I also enjoy a certain measure of celebrity status – I am firmly of the belief that our focus in education and events need some serious overhaul. I am often involved as an educator in events where the educational tracks are not providing participants what they truly need in terms of valuable socializing opportunities and interaction with educators that can breed true dialogue and answers to questions that they may have. Some of the most meaningful experiences and conversations I have had with some participants are in restaurants, lobbies and in outdoor smoking area’s where people are in casual mode. The fear that it is political leather suicide to even question an educator or proclaimed leather celebrity makes for some very one-sided ego driven workshop hours. I believe incoming generations of BDSM folk need to understand how valuable old fashioned “manners and respect” actually are in the process of gaining the information, play opportunities and experiences that they seek. I do not need people to stress themselves out trying to find a way to approach me for conversation… Simple basic manners and shared mutual respect – regardless of age and stature in the community – are the measure of how I judge what types of interaction I am willing to have with people. In those situations I feel free to share openly and freely because it has always been my hope to see the leather community thrive and go on to greater personal freedoms and personal enjoyment. At this point in my leather career I am far more interested in showing like minded people how to share “sexual energy and connection” with those they have SM interactions with, more so than teach them how to use a tool or perform carnival type scenes to gain quick supposed respect as a player.
I believe in carrying my BDSM life as a positive aspect of who I am as a person. I don’t feel the need to convert – getting too old for all that! I think preaching to the choir has its merits because the choir actually has need of a more detailed way of understanding what they have gotten themselves into. I want non kinky people to respect my choices and be supportive of my rights to self govern my sexual experiences – whatever they may be in a consenting fashion.
Some of the energy and fire has gone out of our organized leather life and with the gathering places dwindling to a precious few, and the economics of the times being as they are – some new kinksters are certainly not experiencing the connections with longtime players needed to grasp the skills balanced with energy that are usually a part of how “we” play. The task is to see how the opportunities can be created where this socializing and imparting of common sense information can happen – where all who venture in can partake – without burning out the qualified few who might take on this re-education of the troops…so to speak! I salute you for offering this subject for discussion. When I am available – I am willing to be part of the solution.

Queen Cougar

Seth Munter
June 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm

As usual, Race, you are brilliant and right on. I won’t list everything I agree with. I will share one minority opinion: Let’s improve education, not reduce it.

I came into the kink community by coming to classes. Without hearing the dry lectures I could not have assimilated the information I needed. More important, it helped me understand there were other pervs like me who liked what I liked and wanted what I wanted. Demos actually helped me avoid bad scenes and enabled me to stop focusing on technique so I could dive into connection. Perfect? No. But what little vetting that goes on seems better than learning from strangers in bars.

Innovative learning applies to the community as well as individuals. In addition to criticism, we should praise innovation. I love LDG’s interview format and brought up new topics beyond skills. YLDG is holding groups from young men to learn from one another. Leathermen at the movies and other groups are creating alternative venues. Let’s share the success stories as well, and educate people planning programs so they can innovate by example.

Let’s also consider what “community” we serve. I estimate about 200-300 men are involved in what I consider the SF leathermen’s community. Contrast that with 25,000 men on recon right now, 1500 of whom are looking for kinky sex in San Francisco. We might be improving the kinky lives of many of these buys by providing information and examples. Maybe these guys only go out when the timing, topic, convenience, interest, and motivation align like the stars. There may be some value in frequent and repetitive programs, and the broad and general outreach that is needed to cut through the clutter these days.

Rather than asking for less, I want to support anyone willing to stick their neck out and invest their time and energy in building education and community. If you want quality education, support the people you criticize. If you know about innovative education or social pedagogy, take some initiative. Reach out to those of us who are doing our best, but may not know what the hell we’re doing. As long as people who hold these classes are seeing the difference they make in others and as long as the people who show up are getting value from attending, it’s going to be hard to convince me to advocate doing less.

I worry about the alternative to the “bad” education. Google any topic someone curious about kink might search for, and see what comes up. Should we reduce face-to-face education in favor of detached, isolated, non-vetted internet sites?

But we should shift the focus. Let’s help educate our leaders on “how to” do it better.

Deb Williams
June 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

This is a timely and useful discussion for me to get in on, so I want to thank you, Mr. Bannon, for bringing it up once again. I live in NYC and recently I’ve been dismayed (I suppose that’s the word) by what I’ve been seeing lately on the NYC scene. And I should be more specific about who I am and what I’m seeing. I’m a bi leather M/s top and what I’m seeing, rather what I am FEELING, is less and less of that “sexual or intimate context as part of the lecture demo,” that Jeff was talking about, as people seem to place more and more emphasis on creating presentations that pass the “safety-police” muster. And that’s all well and good. Safety, as much as is possible, IS important. But being so safe and nit-pickingly careful that sexiness and intimacy are completely left out, frankly, I can sit at home in my flannels eating Ben & Jerry’s all by myself, thanks. Some of these demos leave me so dry and tight, my poor underused “Doc Johnson” just shrugs its shoulders and hops back into my night stand drawer.

I have been contemplating for a while now starting something new here. I feel a need for something that simply isn’t here. And I want to say, “isn’t here anymore,” but I can only say that based upon what I’ve heard others say. Others who’ve been around the scene longer than I. I hear so many people talk about how the leather scene used to be. They tell me about the Mineshaft and the Lure, like NYC used to be a little bit-o-kinky heaven “back in the day.” They tell me they sometimes have fantasies of walking into the used-to-be-Mineshaft, now-posh-restaurant, being seated and given a menu, and starting to talk loudly and nostalgically of “the time some hot top banged the ‘s**t’ outta some hot bottom, right over there in that corner…” And it’s true that what I “miss” is something I have never experienced. Oh, I’ve caught glimpses here and there in creating my own scenes and in having witnessed a handful of really good demos. But, I think what I’m missing is milieu. More specifically, supportive, leather milieu, which I wonder whether that was EVER present here. But, your words have given me some ideas, thoughts, guidance that I think I can use in going forward. And I think I’m going to re-read and sit with your words for a bit. And thank you for even being willing to share your thoughts and insights. They are very much appreciated.

-Deb, aka
Ms Petal

Desmond Ravenstone
June 19, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Race, I’d like to touch on the third leg of your triad – educating the broader public about kink. It’s become my main focus of late, and principally because it is done so little and (as you pointed out) not very well.

When I’ve done educational outreach, I stay clear of showing how to tie someone up or how to throw a flogger. My major focus is on the following:

1) Motivation – Why do some people do this stuff? Yes, that’s complicated, but giving some basics of the psychology and physiology behind kink helps people to realize that what we do ain’t so “out there” as they might think.

2) Demographics – From percentages of the population, to how kinksters are no more prone to being abused or screwed up as the rest of the world, the growing body of research into who we really are helps to banish many of the misconceptions people have about us.

3) Community – One of those misconceptions is that we’re all just a bunch of lonely sickos who go out seducing/recruiting innocents into our fold. Learning that we have our own global community, lingo, symbols and ethos turns that around. It can also peak people’s interest and prompt them to ask more meaningful questions.

4) Safety – This isn’t just the technical bits, but more importantly the mindset, and one of the values of community (ie, safe-call buddies). And it shows the element of caring and thought that is interwoven in all we do.

5) Discrimination – We’re not just a minority in terms of numbers, but in terms of social power. With that comes all of the paradoxes of prejudice and discrimination, such as constantly being told to keep all this “private” while allowing others to violate our privacy.

The vanilla public is already growing more “kink-aware” with the rise of “50 Shades of Grey” and other sources. The right educational approach – focusing on who we are as people rather than the technical aspects of what we do – can help move an increasing number into being kink-positive.

Lily
June 19, 2012 at 8:50 pm

I’m somebody who goes to those classes you talk about.

Sure, there are instructors who are really great; and others who will need to work on their skills to make their classes really great.

But I am very grateful for classes, and I’ll tell you why: I am a shy perv.

I’m also a shy perv who LOVED school.

I never went clubbing in a vanilla context — why the hell would I do it in a kinky one? I loathe the idea of standing around somewhere where it’s too loud to talk, wearing clothes I have no desire to buy, own, or put on.

I am, however, very happy to sit in a class and think.

I like classes because I always learn something — even from the not-so-great classes — and back when I was a petrified baby perv, it wasn’t a failure if I didn’t talk to anybody.

Now I go and bring cookies and meet people. And I still don’t have to listen to that first Enigma album or wear a corset.

Andrea Zanin
June 19, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Race, I agree with much of what you’re saying, but in your first section I think you’re addressing a few separate issues. Or at least, that’s how I would reframe some of your points in order to then offer some ideas and challenges. As you might expect from me, this is a somewhat lengthy response, and I’m cross-posting it to my blog as well with a link back here. 😉

The first, and most important, is event model. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but to make a long story short, the vast majority of events I’ve encountered in 12 years in the scene have been motivated to some degree by a desire to grow and make money. This neoliberal capitalist-minded approach to creating pervy communities is so common that organizers not only adopt it without thinking, they also assume everyone else is adopting it too—to the point where, when I explain that the event I co-organize is not interested in getting bigger or making money, people are downright baffled and sometimes almost offended. Other models exist and/or can be created, and would serve our needs far better in many cases, but frankly if a different basic model or range of models is to gain in popularity, that would require such a drastic rethinking of the fundamental capitalist values people are taught in mainstream (especially American) society—at the very least in order to be able to consciously put them on the shelf when it comes to kink organizing, if not in one’s life as a whole—that I have little faith it will happen in the next 20 years, or even in my lifetime. I’d love to be proven wrong. :)

The second is celebrity culture, which of course ties in awfully well with neoliberal capitalism. If the purpose of a class or an event is genuinely educational—as in, aiming to create opportunities for people to learn—then the decisions about how it is run, what topics are covered and who is to cover them would look very different than much of what we see today. The skill sets demanded of presenters would also look very different, when presenters are needed at all, and as you pointed out, not all learning requires presenters. Celebrity passes for topic expertise and stands in for skill in North American culture at large (did Bono ever major in African studies or economics or have a career in HIV policy, for instance?), so of course that happens in the leather world as well.

But celebrity and flash do sell event tickets—and if you are invested in selling tickets and getting bigger, then that is valuable. Again, in order to change this, the whole model needs to be taken down, which would involve a direct challenge to a lot of core cultural values imported directly into the leather scene from the mainstream. For starters I think the leather community should completely drop the entire title circuit model, or keep it around for kicks in bars here and there and nothing more. It’s a celebrity-creation machine that only perpetuates the problems you’re pointing out here. (If we want to breed leaders, let’s invest in leadership training and mentorship on a broad scale; and if we want to recognize leaders, let’s find creative ways to thank and support the people who are already leading. But that’s a whole other topic.) While we’re at it, let’s kill celebrity auctions at events, VIP tables and rooms, and so forth. If that sounds like a scary idea, why? Maybe because then you’d have less money coming in? Refer back to my first point.

As for education proper, one major issue is target audience. It is still relevant to teach very basic stuff at events because there are always new folks showing up who don’t know that stuff yet, and when you fail to offer it, you create a much more elitist/exclusive community that can begin to ossify—not so good. But when you’ve been around for decades, the usual class topics can begin to look repetitive. In an effort to keep more experienced players coming back, new topics need to be offered.

The problem lies in that in some cases organizers and presenters take that logic and run it through a mindset of “bigger/louder/scarier is better” (again, typical neoliberal capitalist mainstream thinking), so of course what pops out the other end is “How to Discipline Your Slave with an Axe” or whatever. As you mentioned, one of the most common cravings among more experienced players is opportunities to deepen understanding of relationships and power dynamics—to look at the nuances, not to find the next flashier thing. So it’s not really over-education that’s happening as much as it is a flawed focus in the direction of that education.

Personally I’d recommend a basic three-track model for the average large event: richer focus on essential relationship and communication skills and on basic play skills for 101-level players with lots of hands-on practice time; opportunities to deepen power management/communication/relationship skills for more experienced players, with lots of group discussion time, skill-sharing, and structured time for practice of specific techniques (for instance, applying active listening, non-violent communication and other well-known communication models to D/s relationships); and carefully taught, small classes on riskier forms of play, informed by existing medical research and with way more hands-on practice opportunities for those too. For instance I find it shocking that I’ve taken at least five knife play and cutting classes in the last two or three years and at no point have any of them included anybody putting a razor blade and an eggplant in my hands; and with one or two notable exceptions, no play classes I’ve ever been to have referenced medical literature. We do have enough doctors, nurses, EMTs and academics in our communities whose knowledge and expertise we should be drawing on way more than we actually do!

When it comes to topics that are so specific to leather/BDSM that there’s simply no formal qualification available, presenters should get used to a) saying up front that there is no such thing as expertise here, and no existing research to work from, just personal experience, and b) stating their own biases up front so that everyone knows where their perspectives and insights are coming from. (Example: “I’m a 60-year-old gay white leatherman who came into the scene 15 years ago, so pretty late in life. I’ve had three significant D/s relationships with men in the last 12 years, one as a submissive and two as dominant, all of them 24/7. I learned much of what I know from my late friend Master Bob and I am a practicing Buddhist. I’m basically monogamous and have zero experience with women, and I’ve been a computer programmer for 35 years. That’s where my perspectives come from, and they may or may not resonate with you. I’m just offering what I know from my own experience.”) Rarely do I hear presenters state their biases—which we all have and which limit us in ways that both add and remove value. I suspect many aren’t even able to say what their biases are, and we don’t generally ask them to. I think they should be stated as a preface for pretty much any class on anything, it’s just all the more relevant when there’s no independently verifiable element to what’s being taught.

As well, right now, even in our educator-centric top-down education model, there is no demand for verifiable “official” expertise, so there’s no special reason for anyone to acquire it in order to teach in the BDSM/leather world. There’s also no demand for strong teaching technique or curriculum development skill, because the celebrity culture I’m trashing here leads people to accept a class model that generally aims to showcase the presenter rather than to give participants specific take-aways. So there’s very little encouragement and few community-specific resources for BDSM presenters to acquire ground-level teaching and class design skills (introducing yourself with relevant information, explaining your approach, creating group rapport, structuring a class, explaining your purpose and focus, defining key terms, using visual and tactile aids, accommodating different learning styles and abilities, timing breaks, working in group work and individual reflection time, allotting time for practice and discussion, dealing with hecklers or other troublemakers, etc.). This same celebrity culture also leads participants, in turn, to uncritically accept presenters’ edicts rather than to see them as starting points for developing their own ideas.

If the demand were created for the things I’m listing here, perhaps people who want to present would start to acquire and provide them, and even the educator-focused model could bring us a lot more quality. I bet that the more regular employment of detailed feedback opportunities from participants on each class they attend would also be very useful. Who’ll be the first event organizer to set that bar?

The vetting question is a complicated one. Elevating anyone to a “vetter” status creates the chicken-and-egg problem of how they got to be so qualified, and may perpetuate the problem created by celebrity culture where those whose word is more respected don’t necessarily match up with those who are qualified to know anything. I think there might instead be reason to ask more often for independently verifiable qualifications in some cases—medical or communications training, say—and to create more peer-to-peer learning situations where expertise is not the focus anyway. Even those can benefit from skilled facilitators, so no matter what, there’s clearly a need here for those who wish to serve the community to both supply and demand more opportunities to learn how to teach. Yes, that implies some time investment on the part of presenters, but those who are really interested will make the investment, and those who don’t can at least be chosen with the knowledge that they haven’t.

As for your second section, about education, in the form of demonstrations, as outreach to bring people into kinkster networks—what kind of public venues are you talking about? Places like the big commercial sex product trade shows? Places like anyone-can-register conferences in major hotels? Workshops given at feminist sex stores? I agree that in some cases public demos end up being more about voyeurism than education, but context and intention make a huge difference here, so I can’t quite get behind a hard-line dismissal of them. And it’s all the more complex in that context sometimes trumps even the best intentions on the part of a presenter; and the “wrong” intentions can trump the most fully appropriate of contexts.

I know, for instance, that when I did a fisting workshop with a live demo at a university sex week, some people were profoundly moved by it and learned stuff they simply would never have learned any other way—the demo bottom and I both got some incredible feedback about how life-changing that was for some folks who’d never learned about the intricacies of female anatomy and who witnessed the gentleness and care of the demo when they expected it to be scary and violent. But some frat boys walked away from the same demo and spent the rest of the night loudly making fun of the demo bottom’s body shape over too much beer at the university pub. I’m still not sure whether on balance it was a good idea to do that demo or not, but it’s not nearly as simple as yes or no. Perhaps it could have been advertised differently, perhaps the participants should have been vetted some, perhaps… I dunno. Questions well worth pondering.

When it comes to your third section, about educational outreach to the general public, I agree that most don’t need specifics. I don’t even think our non-kinky families of origin need lots of specifics—I cringed about sixty times when reading “When Someone You Love Is Kinky” for instance, thinking “I would NEVER tell my mother that level of detail about what I do! And it’s not what she would want to know anyway, she just wants to know I’m safe!”

But are you seeing outreach that does seem to provide huge amounts of detail? In what context is it taking place? What sort of detail is being provided, and in what way is it harmful to us? What is this “asking for more” you’re referencing, which we shouldn’t be doing? I’m not aiming to challenge your point here per se, as it seems sound to me at base, but I’m curious because I’m not sure I actually know what you’re saying should not happen.

I think some elements of the non-kinky public need way more detail and sound education—such as doctors, therapists, cops, lawmakers, judges and so forth—so they can properly serve kinky people without bias or misunderstanding while nevertheless retaining their critical faculties. Not all kink is done in safe and healthy ways, after all, and for professionals to help those who need it, they need to be fed more than just the party line about how we’re all so RACK and SSC, preferably by people who know enough about the field in question (psychology, law enforcement, whatever) to have some credibility in the eyes of those they’re teaching, along with the ability to speak using terms the learners will understand. And I think general shame- and stigma-busting is useful to the general public, for instance in challenging common perceptions of pervs as being dangerous, deranged and criminal. So it’s mostly about providing a topic focus and level of detail that’s appropriate to specific purposes.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. Glad to see this discussion is happening. :) I’ve read the other commenters with great interest, and I hope I’ve added some more food for thought.

AtlGentleGiant
June 20, 2012 at 6:27 am

Race,

I agree with you on almost all of your points. Things have become very busy and less social.

I have a big concern about the general public and even a general education of the general public, especially with the trash that is “50 Shades of Grey” and how portrays BDSM. So many vanilla people are taking it as gospel that the portrayal in the book is how BDSM relationships work and especially with a movie coming out it may be very difficult to get that schlock out of people’s heads and get them open to seeing that our relationships, while different, are not dangerous or in many ways like the books. How do we combat this? I can also see many new people coming in based on the books and some of them, especially the guys thinking that they can get laid by acting the way the guy did in the book and that it is OK, are both clueless and dangerous.

Richard Bolingbroke
June 20, 2012 at 9:02 am

Race,

thanks for your challenging article. It reflects much if my unconscious discomfort with much of what goes on in the leather/kink scene, but which, since I am not as verbal and intellectual as you, I haven’t sorted out with the clarity you present here.

I had already backed off from doing a demo at Leather Alley because I felt like I was “on stage” and there was no real connection with the gawking public..a carnival as you say. I have almost never gone to workshops because I prefer to “learn” by participating, not looking on. I thought this was just my own eccentricity..its nice to see you feel much of the same. Being a creative person I have taught myself most of what I know, in both my art and my kinky life. I’ll meet someone I’m turned on by, play with them, and absorb what and how they play and then make it mine.

And I have also felt that much of our educational efforts missed the point, which is that we are doing this so we can have better, more fun and deeply connected SEX. Without the sex part, its like learning how to chop vegetables to make dinner, but never really creating the stew, and certainly not eating it. Wheres the reality here?

In terms of how we validate the teachers in our midst, I think that should come down to a consensus in the community: He/She knows what they’re doing, learn from them. While its true the best players are not necessarily good teachers, one can always learn by playing with them. Teaching is not for everyone. I am probably a lousy teacher, which is why I have never really gone that route, but I am good at showing while playing with people, and I do that a lot. And I feel that play parties like The 15 pass along a lot of skills between members. The Old Guard method had a lot of validity in terms of a community consensus about peoples skills, but while that time is long past, I still think that we as a community, know who to learn from. Its not going to be a mass education thing, but a slower filtering down of knowledge and skills, creating the right stew, not just chopping the vegetables. We’ve become impatient with the pace of this, living in this age of immediate gratification, but you can’t force this stuff, its a slow process. I think that we could benefit from having more play parties, more having kinky sex in ways that others can participate, small group play etc and this would help a lot.

We’re not trying to create a Masters Degree in Kink here..lets relax that whole component. Its so straight and corporate. Lets do it our way, with participation and sharing, creating a more loving community. Educate, yes, occasionally, but lets play more, share more, lets create that stew and lets eat it and feel full of something really nourishing.

Bruce Tidwell
June 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Race,
I agree, too. I’ve been involved in several groups devoted to education and taught my share of classes but it seems to me that their greatest drawback is that, generally, they are cold. You can learn all the nots in the world and take the head off a matchstick with a single tale but it is charisma and chemistry that make a scene hot. The lecture format paradigm completely leaves that out.

When I came out in the Atlanta scene in the late 80’s there were no classes but a big part of my “training” as a leatherboy was the BDSM Discussion Group every Wed. evening at the Eagle. Fifteen, or so, people sat in a big circle and just chatted. I can’t remember if there were topics but the conversation wondered over a wide area. If somebody mentioned something you wanted to learn you just asked them about it and there was a good chance they would offer to show you how. One night Dan B. showed up in a full body rope harness. I just told him it was “cool.” He said “It’s easy! Come over next Saturday with 50 ft. of rope and a six pack and I’ll show you how to do it.” Not only does that way of educating add personality, it also builds community. It also provides the possibility that a person can learn what they want now rather than waiting six months, a year, more(?), waiting and hoping somebody will add it to the class schedule. That tradition also encourages the idea that anybody can be a “teacher.” Of course you do need to know *something* but you don’t have to be the worlds expert to pass on what you know.

Perhaps the popularity of instructional teaching is that it offers menu access to education. A person can sit in the back row, learn the basics, and sneak back home without having to get to know people or expose themselves. The “I just want to be kinky, I don’t want to tell anybody my name.” frame of mind.

Gloria Brame
June 21, 2012 at 1:17 am

It’s exciting to see all this dialogue and read all the important points people are making. I hope this will reach out further in the BDSM/leather communities and get other people talking.

Race, one thought I had about your point that organizers over-schedule classes, both in number and by filling each time-slot with different tracks. I would love to see more education en masse: classes attended by all conferencees. One of the best parts of leather events for me is when we all come together at awards ceremonies and contests. The energy in the room is always incredible. Imagine that energy combined with either one stunning speaker or a panel of diverse speakers. I think there would be a greater spirit of solidarity, and far more motivation for people to attend. It would give educators the opportunity to get their messages across to the whole body of people who attend, rather than the handfuls who show up when you run 30 classes a day. It would also mean that educators had to speak to ALL the BDSMers in the room — not just to the special interest groups. Of course, special interest groups have a place too, as do safety demos, but
I don’t know why we should stick to the kinds of educational models that corporations or academic institutions use. Perhaps if we thought of education as 2 days with 2-3 intensive panels a day, and a handful of less formal classes, organizers would be able to be more selective about presenters.

still blissed from dinner,
love,
Glory

Alan Arthur Chiras
June 21, 2012 at 7:11 am

I would rather go and learn at a dozen educational demos and classes that have to deal with one more sash contest. There are many parts of this country that could use those classes and are not awash in them. Seek out communities in our country that could use this education.

David Stein
June 21, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Race,

Once again, you’ve started the right discussion at the right time. Many of the “established” BDSM events and institutions around the U.S. and elsewhere are struggling to adapt to changed circumstances — not *just* the Internet, but that’s a big part of it — and remain relevant. And many others, like my beloved GMSMA, have disappeared, having accomplished much of what they set out to do but unable to come up with a new vision.

There is little, if anything, I disagree with in what you wrote, but as you know, the devil is in the details. Some of the issues, like vetting presenters or designing educational sessions that people can actually learn from, have been around for decades, and what we’ve learned most is what *doesn’t* work.

One big issue you touched on and some commenters have gone further with is the tendency to focus on how to make our events bigger and bigger, and thus more “successful.” Most of us who talk about or practice BDSM education don’t pay enough attention to the structural imperatives of size and how they tend to force us into corporate models that aren’t really appropriate for what we want to accomplish. Even when the event is nonprofit, as the best ones are, we tend to measure success mainly by the number of “paying customers” who come through registration, and less on what they do the rest of the weekend.

Long ago, in the early days of GMSMA, I pointed out that there are different levels of complexity, expense, and work required depending on whether your group can meet comfortably in someone’s apartment, a donated or inexpensive larger room, a rented meeting hall, or a hotel or convention center. And it makes a big difference if you want exclusive use of a larger meeting space. Each bump upwards in size brings with it all kinds of consequences that can undermine the focus of the group itself. Most of our groups have gone through all these stages, and the compromises and adjustments they’ve had to make to remain financially viable aren’t all pretty.

Americans especially are very impressed by quantitative claims and skeptical of qualitative claims. So if you can market an event as having more classes, more presenters, more demos, more attendees, more crosses and tables at the play parties than any other, the response is likely to encourage you to keep going in that direction until you have a mega-event that consumes the lives of everyone who becomes involved in putting it on while becoming less and less relevant to the perv on the street.

Oh, I could go on and on in this vein, and get smacked down for being “too negative.” But the truth is that many of us have worked very hard and with immense good will to create the system you rightly criticize as ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. It’s really *hard* to do something different, let alone something better than we’re used to! Maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t have any choice, because if things don’t change, public BDSM will fade away except as a self-parody.

Thanks for stirring the pot!

warmly,

David

Patrick Mulcahey
June 21, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Race, I want to chime in to second Gloria’s suggestion and to make a couple of my own.

As the two of you know, I had the rare opportunity in late 2010 to take over the leadership of a community educational group here in San Francisco. The organizers were tired, the monthly skills-oriented programming had become progressively tougher to plan; our bag of tricks doesn’t call on so many “skills” that the gamut is not soon run and the novelty gone, you know?

My only condition was that I be given free rein with programming. I had some strong biases (you heard them the other night) about “community education” and a powerful dissatisfaction with how it’s typically offered. A chance to try it another way had suddenly fallen into my lap. Our very first program was attended by five men, one of whom walked out in indignation, so what did I have to lose by trying something new?

The first big thing I learned was exactly what Gloria describes: the power of the Everybody In One Big Room event. The panel we did with you, Guy, Gayle Rubin and Thorn attracted upwards of 300 fire-marshal-defying attendees. The fact of so many of us being together in one place, sharing the same experience, laughing at the same things, applauding the same sentiments, was more powerful and even transforming than anything that was actually said. Don’t ask me to explain it, but Race, you know it’s true, because you were there.

The second big thing was that there is more power and more truth in our doing and our telling than in anything we tend to think of as “teaching.” I get more from hearing about who you are and what you’ve seen than I ever will from watching you stick a needle or a hundred needles in anybody’s scrotum. It seems to me that the typical classroom settings we see at kink conferences, thirty-plus people in rows of chairs in a room, are *only* really suited to exactly this sort of highly personal and interactive treatment of a topic — but amazingly enough, they’re almost never used that way.

We do still present demos. But my belief about demos is that what is chiefly being demonstrated is NEVER sounding, chest harnesses, CBT, or whatever the nominal subject was advertised to be. It’s something else — tenderness, lust, respect, love, exhibitionism, it can be a whole lot of things — but before you plan that demo, you better know what that something is and understand it’s going to come through more loud and clear than sounding, chest harnesses, CBT ever will.

I don’t think we need to give up “skills” education; it just needs to be drastically rethought. The way we do it doesn’t work, not just because the emphasis is all wrong, but because it has no correspondence to the way anybody actually learns. The best we can expect from a really good “classroom” suspension-bondage program is to inspire people to want to learn more. Nobody learns how to hang a hot naked person from the ceiling by watching somebody else do it.

One of the best “skills” education models I’ve seen is the one OCLA used to follow in its “Sampler” program. They assembled a great group of expert players for the weekend, and attendees could sign up for a private hour with any expert of their choice, until the dance cards were full. Fantastic opportunity to learn (or experience), alone or with a partner, the specific magic each of these headline players brought to their work. I learned more in an hour with Brian Dawson than I could have learned in twenty standard “classes.”

Thanks for keeping the conversation going, my friend.

TammyJo Eckhart, PhD
June 22, 2012 at 10:23 am

When I was educational coordinator for Headspace as Indiana University we limited our educational program in two ways.

First we only had one event a month that was educational in any sense of the word. Being on a university campus we couldn’t demonstrate certain things so we tended more toward mini-lectures with discussions. The goal was to get people thinking and let them know that folks out there with interests and experience were available if they chose to pursue that. When we paid for a guest speaker we always vetted them, at least when I was in charge, I can’t speak to after that. Otherwise we relied, as many organizations do, on volunteers.

Second our external education was focused on working with faculty who taught various human sexuality courses. I’d meet with them, listen to what they were teaching about BDSM and if I thought it was worth our time, I’d ask them to include certain information with their class before we arrived. I had no problem crossing a class off our list to help if they treated us disrespectfully or referred to use as people with a mental illness — one psych class did this and looked at my volunteers who had come to speak about their experiences, told the professor that she was mistaken, and I walked us out of there. We never demonstrated anything, we talked about our relationships in terms that we hoped the class could understand and answered questions though we always told our volunteers and the class that anyone could refuse a question they felt was invasive.

I actually learned a lot about college aged sexuality and ideas myself from helping the faculty. The volunteers usually reported that they learned something too and had fun; if they didn’t have a good experience I met with them and tried to help understand what happened and worked to prevent it in the future.

Doing the education, even just organizing it, is a lot of work. I think many just don’t realize that before they volunteer and thus the time and effort needed falls apart.

Bob Peterson
June 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Bound in Boston is shrinking its attendance at its next event to try and improve the quality of learning. It’ll be interesting to see if that helps.

I run a small rope workshop in my house and I’m aiming at numbers just high enough to sustain it without cramping men or turning people away. I keep it sex-positive by permitting nudity and touch, without allowing actual sex. It’s about social learning from one another, no stars, no set agenda, just practice time.

I think for gay men in Boston the problem is not too many classes. It’s too few. So I wanted to contribute in some way to fill this gap. This model is one I find sustainable and easy to use since I’m no teacher, no star, but I still gets guys to learn.

Cleo Dubois
June 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Hi Race,
Thank you for for that blog posting. I wish I had seen it sooner. You know I teach BDSM, have for a long time. I focus on energy , connection,with lots of hands-on in small groups during my weekend Intensives. Sunday I participated a demo at Leather Alley. Won’t do it again. Indeed Race the general public had no concept of why we do what we do, and our play is perceived as a freakish adult carnival. I will continue providing the Intensives in a small controlled environment for those really interested in taking more conscious steps in their leather journey. As for presenting at large Conferences , the new comers needs to learn the basics of communication and play skills. Entry level classes have a place there. Let us keep the magic of SM alive!

Fakir Musafar
June 26, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I’m with you Race on most of your observations. Been involved with conferences since the early NLA ones in the 1970s and early Janus programs. The scene has changed, the attendees have changed, the intensity has changed. Where did the the enthusiasm and altruism go? Seems to me energy sensitivity and the desire to share has been replaced by style and technique. Do we need more “show boating” or more hands-on teaching? I’m an old timer and now only deal with small groups of devoted students. As Guy said, the pioneers showed way and now perhaps it is time to disengage.

Gina
June 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I think you make many valid points, and I agree with you on ALL of them. I am disappointed to see events that were key in a lot of my generation’s start – like Black Rose – becoming just another list of classes I don’t want to attend.

As a seasoned professional trainer, BDSM presenter, and leather titleholder – I set a very high bar for presenters when I am in charge of an event. It’s been 6 years since I’ve hosted Ohio Leather Fest, but sometimes, I miss it. I liked knowing that myself and co-hosts had vetted my presenters and wish more people would do the same.

I attended a GRUE last year, that was based on the idea of people presenting their own topics. While this was OK in theory — I wanted to be the person who sat back and watched and learned from others, and I found myself just annoyed. It’s RARE that I find a class I want to go to, and often times, like you said, it’s because it’s something crazy/new/kinkier-than-thou sort of topic that even I fall prey to. 15 years of experience in the public scene seems to mean nothing anymore, unless you’re out, loud, and playing to an audience… And for me, that sort of mentality makes me just want to stay home.

Skip Purdy
June 26, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Race, thanks for your insight. You hit on many points I’ve only thought about obliquely. And you also voiced many of the reasons that have kept my relationships with the “community” from the less than whole-hearted commitment I’ve had with it over the years.

As a very kinky guy who has been on the fringes of the leather community for longer than I would like to admit, I have to tell you that what has been turning me off over the multiplying demonstrations of technique and gear has been the general lack of turning me on. There seems to be this disconnect between what it’s intended to support (which is guys getting it on in “non-vanilla” ways), and what we’re actually seeing, which often has an almost ascetic quality to it, and feels very far removed from what gets my hormones going. Most of the time, I’m just not smelling the manstink, guys.

There is also the not entirely undeserved feeling that the leather community has become more about “fancy dress” and pageants than anything else, and in *that* we don’t differ substantially from the Imperial Court or Wigstock.

One of the demonstrations I saw that went right, led by Jorge, was when he was at Chaps (before it was Kok Bar . . . don’t get me started) doing spontaneous rope bondage demonstrations with anyone who wanted to give it a try. In short, Jorge hogtied a bar patron and the end result was beautiful with perfect framing and knots, etc. But how it got there was what that particular encounter was really all about. What made it stand out was the relationship of the two men, developed over a very short period of time. It was about how Jorge courted the bottom’s trust with firmness and affection, how the bottom was moved to offer his complete submission, and Jorge’s relishment of that submission. I was drooling. At that point, the ropes and the knots were just window dressing.

What is important is what happens between two (or more?) men. Leather/kink sex has at least the potential for being the most intimate thing men can do together. For me, what gives it its charge is the play, the exploration, the negotiation, the required sensitivity to the wants and needs of each other; the potential for one twisted fuck to find his deepest counterpart(s). Leather/kink folks have to tread a path with each other and reach a kind of understanding, often non-verbally, that perhaps is not strictly necessary with more vanilla folks. We’re a little animalistic, primal, and dangerous. And for me, that’s what makes it HOT.

What’s the answer? I don’t really know. Less about the gear and toys (unless they’re used as fetish objects themselves by men on the same page) and more about the interaction, maybe? Maybe more scenes demonstrated by couples (or groups) who already know they turn each other on? It’s kind of hard to make something sexy when guys who may not really be turned on to each other demonstrate some technique or toy. It *is* still about sex, isn’t it?

I know for sure we need to dump whatever tendency we might have towards exclusivity and embrace the amazing diversity of kink. Less judgment and more connection. Less disapproval of the particular footwear and more sniffing of armpits and buttcracks. I definitely support more events to connect like-minded people with each other, with fewer demonstrations of the approved “leather canon” of gear and techniques.

Ron Hertz
June 26, 2012 at 7:44 pm

As a long time member of this tribe we call leather I do agree with what you are saying. Classes are fine up to a point, but again hands-on workshops are better. I think there is too much put on presenters who are title holders or well know personalities (but i have learned a great deal from them dont get me wrong) but there seems to be no persons allowed who might have a great topic to talk/present about but not allowed because they are not as well known. Hands on is best. Also like when its a group just discussing things about the community in general. Midroi did a great one this past year about burn out. Agree what others have said, a little of this plate and little of that plate and less overall to have to try and sample in one weekend.

Rope Wolf
June 26, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Race,
Thanks for stating what is so true for many of us. While I enjoy teaching in the BDSM community, I rarely go to a workshop or class. I cannot see s/m 101 class X for the umpteenth time. I do see these 101 how to classes as important for newbies but there are more workshops targeting them than any other group. Those of us into the scene for years are looking for more depth, the next level of what to do with instrument of torture X, relationship classes whether in D/s, poly, or monogamy.

I atttended one class at the last two leather events I went to and I know that I pay my money to support the event but no longer. I am there to socialize with my pals but I would love to talk D/s (which I teach for beginners/intermediates) with those that have been doing it for years. The socializing tends to be with those I already know and the ‘speed dating or speed tricking’ sadly, hit and miss.

I won’t do a demo at Leather Alley again because yes, we are the freak show for mostly drunk lookey loos— or dare dates as I like to call them. You know the type, ‘I dare you to go with me in there’. Sure there may be someone who is trying to break into this community and learn something but I bet it’s 1 in 100. In some situations that might be enough of a return on the investment of time and money, but the caliber of volunteers is wasted on most of these people.

I went to Mayhem Canada a few years ago–one of the best BDSM events I’ve attended. NO 101 classes, if you wanted to teach Caning it had to be a 201 level class. So interesting twists for all of us in attendance. There were small gathering times set aside to talk with others about various topics mostly relationship ones—those into the various D/s relationships, women of color in BDSM, support for bottoms, etc

Mera Tucker
June 27, 2012 at 8:27 am

Bravo!! I certainly agree! Leave the general public alone. We do not need to add them to any outreach. That is inviting trouble. We should be concentrating on our own members. Do we really need to grow our community? I hate inclusivity at this point. Enough already! Shouldn’t we focus on what got us here in the first place? Hot, exciting, play that leads to even hotter sex is why I’m a member if this community. Hell yes! I want to learn more ways to have that hot exciting sex more often!! I do go to events to socialize & rarely attend any classes. It would be interesting to see the data on class participation at events. How many others just go to have fun & see friends or. Set. We ones?

Loren Berthelsen
July 3, 2012 at 9:42 am

Race, you nailed it! I thought it was just me being jaded about what was actually being taught and how it’s being taught. I feel at best we’re over-teaching and under-achieving, and at worst, we’re creating a false sense of competence that creates a dangerous environment.

I do agree with Seth, however, that we should investigate improving rather than eliminating.

Well done, Race.

Jim G.
July 3, 2012 at 11:41 am

Race I don’t find myself always agreeing with what you right, however on this occasion I couldn’t agree more. What you’ve laid out here is a thoughtful and articulate essay on what myself and quite a few folks I know, have been thinking and discussing among ourselves for a while now.

Having known people on the other side of the equation who believe that the public displays, over abundance of what are often educational events for the sake of socializing, and the deifying of title holders, are a great thing and that the “throw as much crap at the wall and pray it sticks” method is working instead of backfiring. I have to say I’m glad to see someone with a voice that carries weight in the leather community step up and say what you’ve said here. We do need to take a step back and look at who and why and what we are doing in terms of community education and public education. We need to go far far away from this notion that holding a title makes that person instantly someone who can or should be teaching, hell they may not even be someone the average person can stand to be around for more than five minutes at a time. The notion of the interpersonal and basic life skills and the ability to be a thinking caring human being are far more important within the leather community than is the ability to florentine flog while juggling knives with your cock and do an intricate rope tie with your toes, all at the same time.

As someone said it seems like we’ve gone into this “parlor trick” or smarmy “I’ve learned the 80th level super secret whip crack of awesomeness from high master big cock” phase and often with an attitude that places self importance and a need to impress people with how much “education” one has above what kind of person they are.

Will they slash the throat of the next person they play with, do they even really know a damn thing, do they have the ability to act responsibly for the physical emotional and mental safety of the people they are playing with? Do they have actual knowledge, can they be vetted, do they have the ACTUAL ability to teach, do they have the presence of mind to meat out an appropriate level of information to the audience they are teaching? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask of those we associate closely with or choose to be teachers for the community of the general public.

In my opinion we need to get back to smaller or more interment educational gatherings taught by folks who are actually qualified AND have the ability to teach. We need to get back to the idea that broad workshops are only good up to a point. We need to get back to a place where folks know it’s ok if they don’t try to cram every intricacy of every toy or technique into their heads at the expense of their core relationships, that it’s ok if they just concentrate on honing the skills they have for a while before trying to move on to mastering another.

Unfortunately some more vocal folks here in my local community have taken up the notion that if you are not attending three workshops a week, two demos on the weekend and playing at at least four different dungeons, that you are some how less than or not really serious. Lets remember what the core of this is about folks, it’s about human interaction that is supposed to be on one level or another pleasurable and day I say it… Fun. I know I know it’s a wacky notion but if we take a few steps back and look at the why we got into all this to begin with, then I think we will see how far afield we’ve gotten.

Jim

Slave Katy
July 3, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Sir,
I am so glad to see this discussion beginning. I have felt for some time now that the education model was deteriorating here in LA. With title holders and popular folks being sought out to present classes they either have limited knowledge of or to simply demonstrate something that is so much more about interpersonal connection than the mechanics that it becomes really just a “look what I can do” moment for the instructors. Fame and popularity does not tell me you know what you are doing, that you have the knowledge and skill to be sharing. I very much like the idea and can imagine that most topics, if not all topics, that should be presented, can be presented far more effectively in a social environment with the teacher moving through the attendees. Being hands on, using the bodies we play with every day.
Thank you for starting a very important and much needed discussion. I hope it grows.

Mronin’s slave Katy

Daddy Dan
July 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Interesting. I like learning new things, and agree the way things are done can be improved. I wish the Pain Guild in San Diego was still around, but it has disbanded. I am working to create SLAP, an imersive experience where the same (small- dozen or less) group of men go through a sequence of classes together. It will include social time to begin and end each class.

The idea is to expose people to types of play they might not ordinarially try in a sober enviornment. By keeping the same group of students together as a single class, people should bond with their group. I haven’t got all the dynamics in place yet to make SLAP (San Diego Leather Academy of Perversion) function yet. Mentoring is a big part of this, as people bond, my hope is they will find mentors that speak effectively to them.

Race made a brillant point that we can improve how we learn and what we teach. So I pose a question: If you were designing a BDSM educational program, what would you include to get around the problems Race mentions? How would it be structured?

-Daddy Dan

Sir LedonTre
July 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Race,
I must say -thank you.
As the producer of NCLW-UU we took the step to revise our event weekend n 2012 after a 8 year hiatus ,for we saw the need for NCLW-UU’s return. As the community has grown our committee took time to acknowledge and address what was lacking in regards to education and outreach.

My personal opinion and thoughts:
Many times event coordinators are so focused on quantity than quality which can be a continuous unchanging procedure that can be a trapped structure.
Many throw in those repeating classes that become boring in time for it’s annual committed attendee ,that supports the mission of an event. In time causing lose to quantity and having to back step to quality which will take time to gain back those devoted attendees that lost interest .

To change will cause lessen of attendees with less attendees there is less of funding which would place an event on the level of GRAND to LOST.
Within the past 10-12 years many but not all have treated being apart of the community as a cliche. Using quantity as the reason to following events that lack educational efforts only to support attending by the numbers , name throwing, rubbing shoulders, and the need to be seen in a venue.
Failing to attend by the quality, of what and how an event may enhance and assist in this large community’s productivity with a focused future progress that can result with a more positive proactive community toward education. Than to focus toward technical skills that can be truthfully taught in a private venue or home.
Our community as a whole must take a step back look at what worked before change and tweak it to adapt with change without our efforts backfiring. Stand strong with structure and place Quality before quantity

Peroxide
July 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I completely agree with you point about public education. I’m not “out” as kinky in part because my house mates think BDSMers are weird, and they got some of their information from presentations that the local kink community did for a university class.

It’s a joke to them, because instead of simply illustrating that certain people enjoy an broader array of sensations and experiences in their sex life, or talking about endorphins and explaining good pain and bad pain in vanilla terms the presenter decided it would be helpful to introduce a bunch of frat boys to fireplay.

Sera Miles
July 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I’m late to this discussion (as I’m late to so many things!), but I am so buoyed by your words here, Race, that I felt compelled to chime in.

I produce the conference “Evolution of the Revolution,” where we rarely offer skills classes, and we construct the event to keep our attendees together the majority of the time. When my team and I conceived of EvoRevo, I believe we had one key quality on our side: we were naive. Most of us hadn’t been to many kink conferences. None of us had ever planned a kink event that extended past a few hours for a workshop/demo, social, or party. So, we developed what we thought would be best, and that included …

– an event full of socializing in an inviting and fun environment
-an event based on headliners and a small (2-4) group of presenters who could each bring something specific to the table
-classes that focus on theory, discussion, and the esoteric over teaching skills
-ample time to do almost everything the conference offers
-a centerpiece focused on conversation (which became our “Kinky Townhall”) instead of a keynote as centerpiece

In other words, I couldn’t agree with you more. In my mind, if I want to learn a new skill, I can approach someone in my community for help/education. As a leader, one of my roles is to facilitate the ability for others to find folks to learn from. That means bringing people together to make those connections–but as you point up, we don’t learn how to do highly specialized skills in one 90 minute class. I’ve watched amazing saran wrap scenes. I have no idea how to intelligently, passionately, and intimately do anything with saran wrap. But if I wanted to learn? I’d ask my friend to teach me.

I also want to give a *cheers* to your comments about the general public and education. Yes, let’s make education soluble enough to create a world where we can do what we want undisturbed. I come from the world of sex work, and that’s long been one of our talking points. We don’t need to tell anyone the ins and outs of how we set our rates or what really happens with our clients; what we need the public to know is that regardless of what anyone thinks of the morality of our work, the legality of our work should not be in question.

For kinksters and the general public, I believe that each time we are honest about who we are, each time we approach a conversation without shame, we provide that needed (and not overly and unnecessarily detailed) education.

Thank you for this essay, Race. I’m sure I’ll return to it and share it with many friends.

Kiri
July 29, 2012 at 10:51 am

I am a noob (only in the community a yr & a half now), so perhaps my opinion doesn’t count for much, but I disagree with you a bit. Maybe its relative to area, but we get a class once a month or two, if that sometimes, so I don’t think its too much. Also, it was a class that got me to finally step into the community. I saw it posted & it was something I had always been curious about so I went. I never would have gone to a social gathering first. The class setting is more comfortable to step in to. You can sit & look around without feeling the pressure to hold conversations or play with a room full of strangers. With the class, there is usually a bit of Q&A at the end where you can hear different ppl discuss things & get a feel for them. Then there is generally a social party after, which now that you’re a bit more comfortable, you can socialize a bit but still feel like you can leave easily if you want since the class is done. The class set up just makes it more comfortable for new ppl to get their feet wet comfortably w/o feeling any pressure to do more than they are ready for. That said, your classes don’t have to be on extreme kinks that make ppl feel like they need to add all these things to their skill set.
As far as how the classes go, I like the lecture/demo thing (perhaps more for the getting your feet wet reasons above than the actual learning), but would LOVE if there was some hands on portion after. Where you can try it out while some more experienced ppl are their to guide you thru. Just hearing about something & seeing it doesn’t really tell you if you could really get into that or not.
Just my 2 cents as a new person to the scene.

Patrick Mulcahey
July 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Kiri, thanks for responding to the conversation. I think the expectations of people new to the community are very much the point in our discussion.

We don’t know each other, so I trust you will understand there is no personal affront intended if I suggest examining the assumptions you make about the purpose and format of kink education:

● You don’t want to have to interact with anyone.
● You want the most passive experience possible, so you don’t have to speak or participate at all unless you feel like it.
● Your assumption is that the entire point of kink classes is “for new people to get their feet wet” — i.e., that proselytizing is the chief objective of community education.

Would even a yoga class open to the public make so few demands upon those attending? I doubt it.

Just as there is reason to question the pressure to acquire more and more highly technical skills, there is also reason to question the belief that good kink education should make basic technical competence and safety information available to people who want nothing to do with us.

Jimmy
July 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm

I really don’t find what you say controversial, and I doubt this is specifically YOUR intent, but I always look at consolidation of any information in the leather community as an attempt to marshall the channels of communication to promote for profit, for ego building or even greater attempts to become the self-ordained “top-tier” of a given community.

I feel badly sometimes that I have become that cynical, but I also am in a community where someone charges to teach bondage. I am experienced and acknowledged in the SM community as experienced, but when offering to do it for free, I was basically shut out because these folks have abscounded with the agenda in the community.

Should I fight or should I just enjoy my private one on one time. When I was younger I would have answered “fight”, now I just acknowledge that there is very little leather community with a small “l” and just Leather Community, Inc.

Glenda
August 2, 2012 at 10:10 am

Well said, as usual, Race. I too am very glad to see this conversation happening as I am a big proponent of events that provide varied types of learning situations because while some folks do learn from the lecture/demo format, others do much better with a more experiential approach.

Russell
August 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Race, you’ve got a couple points here I agree with, but I think you’ve created a false dichotomy of lecture&demo workshops versus and displacing other forms of learning. I just haven’t seen that happening. My experience is that people are actually pretty good at finding the right mix of learning opportunities for themselves.

If you’re looking for a new model of socializing and educational event, check out a GRUE (http://www.grue.me/whats-a-grue/). I think Gray’s breaking some incredibly valuable new ground, and I’m looking forward to the second one here in Seattle. That said, I think *I* do a better job of teaching when I’ve spent time on a lesson plan. I’ve taught and learned good stuff in other ways, but I know people come away with demonstrably better applicable skill from one of my flogging workshops than when I work with them one on one.

I’ve personally been to plenty of classes that were excellent socializing opportunities. There’s preselection for interest, spoon-fed-easy conversation topics, social safety to choose your own level of interaction, plus often some kind of structured practice or discussion. I’ve seen *tons* of people come into the scene in this way. Some just come to a few classes and take what they learned home to a partner, some get really involved in the community and start learning in a whole variety of ways, and I think the whole range is great. Most of us were ‘dabblers’ once.

I do think you’re right that we focus too much on teaching technical skill, though. Soft skills are harder to convey, and harder to vet an instructor for, and still even harder to convince someone they should spend time and energy developing. But, I’d rather play with someone who can shape a scene around punching my arm, than someone who can land a flogger just where they want every time but has no idea how to build connection with it. Tougher to to teach, but vital.

JJBearPhx
August 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm

As to demo’s in public All we are doing id scaring the children and horses, the general public is an animal that can not be educated.
Many of the so called conferences have no desire to educate in there own areas, they are for profit operations, with little interest in support of the local organizations. Many with fee’s in excess of the community members that are affected by disability.
I am a Gay Leatherman currently that is not PC because wile I support the Het Kinksters I am in no way interested in being part of open play space. A great deal has been taken away over the years we have even lost Gender specific leather titles.
In Many ways this homogenization is a result of the Het Kink to make rules that should apply to all. Lets face it one set of rules does not and never will work for all of us involved in Kink.
I took part in the CARAS survey under some of the standards in the questioning I would not be allowed to give consent because I have a learning disability. In Men learning disabilities and homosexuality in many cases go hand in hand to a significant extent.
BDSM education was hands on one on one or in small groups, yes I have done in bar demo’s, Yes I have taught classes over the years here in AZ, the smaller the class the better the results. My favorite way to teach is one on one hands on. 28 years active in the AZ gay leather community the sad part is I have only 2 men that have been here and active longer than I have been. Bear

Bill Henkin
August 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I’m always grateful to have an astute philosopher opening conversations in our little world, and I find it at least as refreshing to have such a wealth of thoughtful talent contributing comments as I find above. The participants in this thread remind me of the leather scene when I arrived: a sturdy core of thoughtful, intelligent people willing and able to communicate clearly, and to question pretty much anything.

I have not been around the community as long as Race and some others here, but when I arrived leather was still mostly an outlaw outpost in the gayles communities, augmented by some queer het and bi fellow travellers like me. There was no internet, and no real outreach to the vanilla world, and except for *The Leatherman’s Handbook*, *Coming to Power*, and maybe *SM: The Last Taboo*, all the books on the subject were written by people outside the walls. Whether in small local clubs or, a little later, at the first LIL conferences, the classes and other teachings I remember mostly clearly were about sharing more than educating — this is who I am, this is what I do, how about you? — and learning occurred pretty organically. I did not learn to use a whip in a class, though I took the classes, but by watching whipmasters of several genders, being whipped by some of them, and then whipping some of them. With Sybil Holiday I taught a lot of 101s and 201s for people who, in the phrase of Race’s book title, were “learning the ropes,” but among the other classes we taught the one that gave me a catch in my throat was our first workshop on alternate personas, when I looked out into the small venue and saw a dozen of the best players I’d ever watched, sitting or standing in the back of the room as if we had something to say that mattered to them.

The democratization of leather, largely through the web, has had wonderful effects such as making knowledge more broadly available, letting people know they are not alone, and bringing together forums like this to all our attentions. The trade-off has been the self-appointed masters and mistresses who hang out their cyber-shingles without ever having played, people who confuse their opinions for knowledge, and abuse masquerading as power play.

We can no longer debate whether this democratization was a good thing or a bad: it’s a *fait accompli*. We can seek to bring our best to the game whether we learn new skills or find satisfaction in what we do, and we can mentor those who follow. That, I think, is what Skip described Jorge doing, it’s what Patrick talks about with that absolutely terrific panel. I think Seth is right: the cat’s out of the bag, so we’d better teach — and well.

Dylan
August 21, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I’m a kinky person who is fascinated by difference and education. I have taken more classes than I can count, both kinky and otherwise, and taught quite a few, mostly in the non-kinky realms. I both love education, and am skeptical of much of it. I like the call to ‘lets make education great.’ And also the query of ‘maybe we need and want something other than education – or a radical revision of education.’

I wonder – maybe there are different educational needs (in kink and beyond); just as there are different sexual and kink desires.

A reflection from my summer – a humbling experience of difference. I spent a good part of the summer with someone who loves technique, and relishes in the learning and perfecting of technique, and that is his entrance into the deep connection and the sublime. He likes classes that teach exquisite technique.

I hear the word ‘perfect’, and I cringe. I think lectures should be under 10 minutes, mayyyybe 20 if its a keynote. Sitting still drives me nuts. Precision – not my highest value.

We are utterly different. And we drove each other batty. Sometimes differences are fun and complementary and exciting. Sometimes differences are like thumbtacks on a chalkboard.

Perhaps its not an either-or, but a both-and. Different education for different people? Different gatherings and ways of connecting for different people?

And, since this is me writing this post, I’ll say what I’d love to see more of, and help create. A way of teaching that really worked for me: This summer I took a singing class in which we sang, we sang together, as a group, in small groups, big groups, pairs, we improvised, we made wild and wacky sounds, we spontaneously interacted, in intentionally structured but quite organically evolving ways. There were no lectures. No techniques. Just doing. And – it worked. By the end of the 6 week class, we had gone deep with each other (whatever that means, but you know it when you feel it). People cried. People opened. And, we all could sing, by the end. In our own gloriously imperfect ways. It takes guts to teach such a structured and yet open ended experiential class. And that type teaching is an art. Just as kink is an art.

In addition to the lecture-demo and discussion gatherings, I would love to see gatherings that have structured and guided activities that are designed to “teach” the art, not the science, of kink. And, perhaps teach is not even the right word. The co-exploration and co-growing of the art, and connection through exploration; lead by people who do have experience in the art of kink, and in the art of holding and creating spaces of expansion and connection and presence.

And, I know that my ex who loves technique and precision would have just full on hated my singing class. Maybe we’re just different. Neither better nor worse, just different. With different desires for gathering and connecting, and different ways of going deeper.

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[…] talk more about this in my post, Are Our Educational Efforts Backfiring?. I won’t reiterate what I wrote there again here, but suffice to say that I believe that many […]

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