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February 21, 2016

Getting Along

A version of this post was originally published in the Bay Area Reporter. You will find the original online version here.

As a long-time kinkster, I have observed many changes and trends in the leather and kink networks since the early 70s. We’ve moved from a fairly small scene that mostly frequented the underbelly of urban culture in dark bars, sex clubs and erotic spaces to a large scene living our kink lives in relative ease out in the open.

One of the modern realities is that the types of people and sexualities now mixing and included under the leather tent are growing quickly and in a multitude of directions. In many ways this is a great thing. We can socialize, work and sometimes play across gender, orientation and sexuality divides in ways that at one time were unthinkable. That’s the upside.

The downside is that these growing intersections and combinations are sometimes causing tensions. Perhaps that’s inevitable. As you thrust people together who have historically functioned mostly separately there are bound to be clashes of needs, priorities and viewpoints. So how do we get along? How do we honor everyone’s needs and views while still figuring out how to function cohesively when we desire to do so? Here are my thoughts. I hope an ongoing discussion continues. And yes, what follows is my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

There are three main things I believe are generating most of the tensions that arise – appropriate inclusion, differing goals and visions, and the impact of social media.

At the heart of many clashes is the subject of inclusion, especially across genders and orientations. Gay men, lesbians, heterosexuals and every variation now mix in unprecedented numbers. This has allowed us to understand each other better. It’s allowed us to work together on projects and initiatives, succeeding when separate efforts might have failed. It’s broadened the sexualities of some. All good outcomes. But it’s also generated a backlash among those who don’t want to mix all the time.

The inclusion of the growing list of kink identities and activities that reside under the leather banner offers further challenges. Traditional leatherfolk are now interacting with younger newcomers who don’t necessarily feel that leather describes them or their sexualities well. Schisms have emerged, sometimes generational and sometimes brought about by simply preferring to be around people who share specific erotic proclivities.

An inextricable factor related to inclusion is that when you mix together such a vast bevy of kink factions it brings into focus starkly different goals and visions for kinky people collectively and for each kinky group. These differences translate into the forming of countless subgroups with each having differing beliefs about core values, gender, sex, contests, events, fundraising, outreach, erotic expression, mission, and so on.

Patrick Mulcahey adroitly describes the overarching challenges of mixing this way.

“I think it’s all evolutionary,” he says. “The reality is that the kinky public has become too large to embrace a single set of myths, tropes, values and standards. Straight, dyke and gay kinksters in the ’50s and ’60s didn’t interact at all and scarcely seemed to know of each other’s existence. That allowed their cultures to evolve independently to suit their specific needs. Now each group has multiplied exponentially and we think we can blend those cultures together? Not gonna happen. It’s amazing we even kept trying this long.”

So, while I see no reason to thwart efforts of inclusion, we worship at the altar of universal inclusion at our own risk. Too much inclusion is not meeting everyone’s needs.

When it comes to pointing a finger at developments that have increased tensions, it’s hard not to point out the elephant in the room – social media such as Facebook and FetLife.

The nature of social media is that it allows us to remain in our little kink niche bubbles. There are some upsides to that, but the downside is that when one niche conflicts with another, the online upheaval becomes amplified and seems to quickly entrench some into believing that their way is the absolute right way for everyone to believe, act, function or otherwise be kinky.

Social media can form coalitions of people who have never met or hardly know each other, and who are only united by an idea of how things should be and what every “good” kinkster should think.

Many of those people only engage with kinksters online with no real world experience. It starts to all sound more like a religious war than reasonable people discussing important issues. Ideologies too often trump civil discourse and the resulting fallout can be devastating. It also feeds into what some have referred to as the culture of outrage and offense.

Add into this mix social issues such as racism, sexism, ageism and transphobia and it’s often a perfect storm for misunderstandings, self-righteous indignation and territorial disputes. Even when people have a reasonable point on such topics the caustic lobbing of accusations can taint the discourse entirely.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s important that we wrestle with important social issues. I think it’s valuable to sometimes mix genders, orientations and kinks. But perhaps there are times we’ve become so inclusive that we are accommodating kinksters who do not understand the scene well or want to change the culture to fit their own personal agendas and issues.

So, how do we address all of this?

We need to get honest with ourselves. We need to accept that when it comes to the complexities of genders, orientations, identities, kinks and politics, one size will never fit all. It’s just not realistic.

We need to accept that our scene is fundamentally about sex and our relationships reflecting those sexual desires. Individual sexuality is not democratic. You can’t sit your genitals down and have a heart to heart talk with them that they are supposed to be equally turned on to all people, environments and erotic expressions. That’s simply not logical.

We need to acknowledge that too many of us have over-compromised our core values in order to fall in line with what we’re told, mostly through the social media bully pulpit, should be the core value of inclusion.

We need to work at striking a balance between inclusion on the one hand and giving people their own space on the other. Everyone deserves their own spaces in which they can be their most authentic and fulfilled erotic selves.

None of this is a justification for unwarranted exclusion. There are all sorts of organizations, events and venues that welcome just about every type of kinky person. And that’s awesome.

However, there is justifiably a place for those of us who wish to socialize and play with those people with whom our inner sexual selves best resonate. That’s just as much of a necessity as is inclusion in other instances.

None of this is a justification for the squelching of robust dialogue either, on social media or elsewhere. We just need to remember that a loud few should not necessarily dictate to the rest of us how to best lead our kinky lives.

It’s all about balance. It’s all about context. It’s all about us asking ourselves if we’re forcing others to bend their sexualities into a pretzel in order to accommodate our own priorities. Fundamentally, it’s about courtesy. Giving each other the common courtesy to fully enjoy and thrive in our sexuality.

Let’s keep the conversation going. I know we have it in us to get along, both together and separately. There is great power in being able to embrace both.

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