I delivered this speech on October 15, 2016 as the keynote address at Beyond Vanilla event held in Dallas, Texas. It’s a bit different than many of my usual speeches.
Good evening. I’m having a great time here at Beyond Vanilla. I hope you are too. Thanks to everyone involved in creating and running this event. I’m impressed. Job well done. Thanks to the organizers for asking me to be here. And a special thanks to all of you in the audience for taking the time to listen to what I have say today. I sincerely appreciate it.
Also, and I say this at the start of most of my speeches, I consider brevity to always be welcome. I promise not to drone on for too long.
So, for the topic of my speech today, I should preface all of it by saying that one of the things that I seem to do naturally, almost compulsively, is to connect the dots across the various things I read, see, and otherwise learn.
I will admit, I’m a geek in this way. I read a book. Have a conversation. Overhear someone. Watch a movie. Take a class. I’m chugging along and then suddenly a lightning bolt of a puzzle forms in my brain and the pieces start to move around, some fitting together, some not. But when they do fit together it’s incredibly satisfying. Ideas spawn other ideas and sometimes I put the pieces together in what I believe is a brand new idea. Or a different take on something that already exists. Or perhaps simply a sudden realization. An “ah ha” moment so to speak. If you were to rummage around in my brain, you’d see a lot of this happening.
And so, this happened one day when I signed up for an online study series and decided to dive into one of the most famous philosophical works of all time, Plato’s Symposium.
I’m sure many of you know this, but for those who might not, Plato was a classical Greek philosopher who, as can best be determined, lived from about 428 BC to 348 BC. He is generally considered to be the father of Western philosophy. Plato’s thought, and his work, Symposium in particular, has shaped the Western philosophical landscape as a whole through its influence on many generations of thinkers from the ancients to the modern day.
Many of you are also at least somewhat familiar with Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle. Both quite famous philosophers in their own right.
Plato wrote the fictional text Symposium to explore the role of eros, both the ancient Greek god of love and a Greek word for love and sexual desire.
What Plato sought to explore in this work was to ponder the role of love in the human pursuit of wisdom, virtue and happiness. The overarching big idea that pervades Plato’s Symposium is this – erotic desire, eros, can indeed lead us to virtue, wisdom and beauty.
One of the reasons my odd brain put my study of Plato’s Symposium into the idea hopper for when I was considering what to speak to you about today is that a symposium of that era was an elite, and considering the time period, all-male, dinner party featuring eating, drinking, intellectual conversation, and sex. Symposia at that time linked erotic desire and education. Sexual activities took place alongside educated discussion.
It struck me that what we do here at these kink conferences of various permutations is often very much the same sort of thing. We eat. We drink. We learn and have our own versions of intellectual conversations. And, hopefully – sadly not often enough as far as I’m concerned – have sex. So in my mind what Beyond Vanilla and the many similar conferences are is symposiums of our own design that have sprung up as an organic manifestation of our own take on the desire to learn amid our erotic identity peers.
We can all seek out self-improvement – things like virtue, wisdom and beauty – by an assortment of approaches including kink, BDSM, fetish or any of the erotic pursuits.
So the linkage struck me as strong between the crux of Plato’s work and what we do here.
I believe we can learn about ourselves and the important aspects of life through many paths. The famous American spiritual teacher and author of the seminal book, Be Here Now, Ram Dass, once beautifully illustrated the range of choices we all have to attain enlightenment and wisdom. He has us picture a pyramid with the ultimate goal of optimal personal development as the top point, noting that there are endless paths by which someone might climb the pyramid to reach the top point as the ultimate goal, that being wisdom or enlightenment or whatever. Kink, BDSM, fetish or any of the erotic choices are among the many paths by which people learn about themselves and life.
This is not to discount the hotness of our styles of erotic practices as a visceral, primal, sexual activity. In my opinion, kink is only really good if we keep the sexual and erotic magnetism front and center as we socialize, learn and play. But along the way kink, if done well and with a certain intent, can also serve as a wonderful metaphor for life and the wisdom we’re meant to acquire.
So, how is this relevant today and, in particular, to our kink scene?
The gist of Plato’s work suggests that the practice of philosophy has a specific aim. That aim is to attain the virtue, wisdom and happiness that leads one to “the good life.” Plato’s stance leads me to believe that eros, erotic desire, and the embracing of erotic desire, is at the center of why we’re all here this weekend. It’s more than just a casual social gathering. It’s also potentially a means to a more elevated end.
As Ram Dass illustrated with his pyramid paradigm, there are many ways to traverse the path toward any particular goal. So when it comes to seeking the good life, eros is one of those paths that meander up the side of the pyramid toward that good life goal. I figured that maybe, just maybe, that’s partly why we’re all here.
Plato was clear that eros is not an unwanted, external force leading people to engage in irrational behavior, which many philosophers at that time thought was the case. Rather, when appropriately harnessed and directed, which I think describes the approaches to play and lifestyle our scene tends to promote, it is a direct path to the attainment of knowledge, ethics and ultimately a peek at beauty, itself the source of all virtue per Plato.
My contention here today is that when you dig deep into our scene, into what we do and how we identify, this is indeed what we’re all seeking, at least some of the time – a peek at beauty, which as Plato believed was itself the source of all virtue and a well-lived life. Yes, our kink is a potential pathway toward beauty and enlightenment. Who knew? Well, I guess Plato and Ram Dass knew.
So that’s a long-winded introduction to what I’m speaking to you about today. Eros, love as both the driving force for what we do and as a mechanism for edification and growth.
And now, brace yourself, because this isn’t the fun, happy part. I fear we’ve too often pushed lots of the eros, the love, the very erotic desire we supposedly honor, to the side in favor of a more cardboard representation of what it is we claim to be about and pursue. Let me explain.
First though I should say that one of the things that philosophy academics have repeatedly mentioned is that the construction of Plato’s Symposium does not lead the reader to a single conclusion. In fact, it leaves the reader entirely unsure of how eros is positioned in the pursuit of a better life. By framing his text as a series of seven often conflicting speeches, which is how the book is constructed, without a firm conclusion, Plato highlights the difficulty of searching for, and the tenuous nature of, truth. And the text’s difficulty encourages Plato’s audience to continue the philosophical task themselves.
So much like Plato’s Symposium, what I say to you here today is not intended to be anything more than an encouragement that you who are listening to me continue to wrestle with the question of what place does eros, love, erotic desire, have in your own kink life and how does it function, or not, to help you be a better person and live a better life. And, for me, just as importantly, does eros have a primary place at all in our kink life and culture or is it but a secondary, tangential consideration?
So let me get personal here. It’s probably best that you hear the rest of this speech in the context of my own views, my own approach to eros, love and kink. I hope that by speaking from my own perspective I will avoid coming off as lecturing or scolding anyone or the scene generally. These are my views and I put them forth as fodder for thought and discussion. Nothing more. If you think I’m full of shit, so be it. That’s your right. Wouldn’t be the first time.
One of the realizations I’ve had about myself is that I can’t do BDSM or deeper kink casually very well. I can have anonymous sex quite easily in a bathhouse or sex club or through an online hookup. But when it comes to my kink/BDSM/fetish play, attempts at casual play usually fall short for me.
I require some sort of bond, that I believe is indeed eros, love, in order to make my kink play work for me.
This need was beautifully reflected in rule number five in Joseph Bean’s now famous “Rules of SM” in which many years ago he laid out 10 rules he believed guides good SM play (we didn’t use the acronym BDSM much back then).
Bean’s rule number five of the 10 was always my favorite because it spoke directly to this need I have, and others tell me they have also, to have some sort of deeper connection with whom I’m doing the edgier of erotic play. His rule number five states:
“If you’re not in love, don’t do scene. If desire and consent do not lead to a kind of love, the scene is probably not going to work. Love can take many forms, but the very ground from which it springs is the demand one places on oneself to please and do what is good for the other person.”
My sense is that this rule, that so many in our scene have told me is also a guiding principle in their own play and how they best function, is evidence that for many of us eros, love, is at the core of what we do and how we do it. Love, and eros, that primal erotic desire, is a foundational requirement for many of us, perhaps most of us, in order to make this thing we call BDSM, kink, fetish, leather or whatever work optimally.
I believe that, perhaps unconsciously at times, what is really at work here is the primal need to utilize eros, love, as a guiding force not only for the overtly lustful and carnal pleasures it elicits, but because we are all seeking self-improvement, and hopefully even enlightenment, wisdom and beauty, through the very sexual activities, identities and culture that we here at Beyond Vanilla are right now celebrating.
Yet, I too often see a disconnect between this supposedly foundational need for eros, for love, for deep erotic desire, in what we do and how we function.
I go to a kink conference, sit in a number of classes, and hear all about various BDSM techniques, protocols, rules, lifestyle dictates, and rarely a word about why we’re all doing this in the first place – eros, love. A newcomer could easily come away from such experiences thinking kink is all about the nuts and bolts aspects of what we do and not something greater. For many, perhaps most, our kinky sexuality lives on both the baser carnal planes and the more evolved higher planes. It serves both needs.
I sometimes sit on a judging panel or I attend a contest and watch interview after interview, speech after speech, by titleholder candidates and they never once mention love or any semblance of it as a motivating force or even it being at the core of who they are or what they do. That always troubles me. Buzzwords like community, tribe and leather values are uttered from the stage, but I rarely feel any true sense of love, eros, deep erotic desire.
I watch the drama that sometimes unfolds in our scene, often on display for the world to see on social media, with some people casting aspersions on others or lobbing nasty accusations at others and I see anything but love, eros, on display. In fact, what I often see is the exact opposite of love.
I walk into a dungeon with lots of scenes going on. I observe someone playing and they look barely engaged. They’re going through the motions. Their technique might be impeccable. But I see no love, no eros, no intense erotic desire. Sadly, I’ve seen this type of play in dungeons increasingly over the years and I sometimes wonder if in our efforts to educate the masses we’ve instead unleashed a lot of great technicians who treat what we do more as an engineering project than as a way for people to bond and love.
When I’m reading personal profiles on FetLife or Recon it seems like it’s become more the norm than the exception to create a checklist of activities, often couched in a rigid role dynamic fantasy veneer, without a smidgen of love, caring or even humanity present. The mere idea that two people might simply chat and come to some love- or even caring-based common ground that meets everyone’s needs seems to be fading into a bygone past.
Yes, I know already that many of you are thinking that eros, love, is indeed the motivating force for all that we do. You might be saying “but what about the aftercare we teach players to do” or “my class had a section on negotiations and isn’t that love” or “look at all that titleholders do for the community” or “what about that $200 we raised for Syrians refugees when we sold Jello shots at the bar last Saturday” and so on.
Those can all be nice, good things. But from what I’ve observed, the motivations behind so many of those things is not always eros, not love, but rather perfunctory accommodation to the status quo. Literally, others are doing it, so I’m going to do it too. And adherence to a status quo is not what being erotic rebels and mavericks is really about, at least not for me. For me, if the source of the scene, on a personal level, is not me looking into the eyes of another man and thinking “I love you so fucking much right now I’m going to tie you up and beat the shit out of you and ride that journey with you because you’re so fucking amazing,” then I’m really not all that interested. That’s not the ride I signed up for. I’m all for lots of the events, conferences and other external trappings that have grown up around the hardcore sexuality the scene was founded upon, but if those exist at the cost of the eros, the love, the intense erotic desire, then I think they’re floating upon a rocky foundation.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we all need to be in deeply romantic love in order to have great play, or that every single thing we do must stem from such deep love. Some of us might need that, and that’s fine, but I do feel that not making love, eros, a guiding, central force for all that we do cheapens our scene to some extent. What we do can certainly come off as bunch of clever sexual parlor tricks if we eliminate love as a guiding factor. At least this is how I see it.
I also don’t want you to think that I believe all kink, BDSM and fetish must take the form of some sort of rigid love ritual every time we play. What we do can certainly be playful, funny and humorous, random, light-hearted, primal, cathartic, and a whole lot of other wonderful things. But my hope is that amid all of that we keep the foundational reason why we do it in the first place, love, eros, in mind.
One of Plato’s assertions in Symposium and his other works is that erotic desire is central to the search for wisdom and virtue, and that the philosopher (and I contend that we are all actually philosophers even if we don’t adopt that label), must learn to desire the right things in the right order.
Going out on a limb here, I think that one of the right things to desire in our scene is ultimately love, eros, that universal force and commonality we can all share, and that the right order in which to pursue what we do is to first and foremost acknowledge that eros, love, is at the core of it all. It is indeed the beginning of what we do, the foundation of what we do, not some accidental outcome of what we do.
In Plato’s Symposium dialogue, in the speech that’s considered by many to be a summation of what Plato had hoped to get across, Socrates asserts that the central impulse of eros is to desire a state in which you would no longer have to desire. He asserts that desire is to want something you don’t have. If the object of your desire is obtained, then the desire for it should cease. He therefore believed that to love must mean to lack, as you wouldn’t desire something you already have. That admittedly seems a long way from modern definitions of love, and it is.
Now, that’s an interpretation of Plato’s work universally accepted by most philosophers. And this points out that eros, love itself, as put forth by Plato, has a contradictory nature, neither purely good nor purely evil. In Socrates’ speech he believed that one must use the base aspects of eros to access the higher aspects of eros.
This is perhaps an idealistic goal of eros and I’m not sure it’s always practical to use it as a ubiquitous community directive. It’s something that typically must be individual. However, what I do think it points to is this, where Plato and I agree.
We can use the base, lustful, nasty, twisted, dark, perverted nature of eros to access the higher aspects of eros – the wisdom, self-edification and growth that can stem from those baser experiences.
We can use our passionate, raw, animalistic and sometimes edgy manifestations of eros, as we do in our kink scene, to revel in its base sexuality, its raw turn on, while at the same time acknowledging that through these pursuits we just might also learn about ourselves, about others, about our world, and about what are the best paths for our own enlightenment and self-improvement.
The important thing is to keep eros, love, that universal erotic force that’s always at play in our lives in reality, always on the table when we do what we do – socialize, play, learn, teach, mentor, organize, work toward erotic social justice… essentially everything that we do.
So, let me again say that I most certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m implying that while I personally don’t always see enough evidence of eros, of love, as the guiding force in our scene, I do see frequent glimpses of it. I definitely do see evidence of it often. What I hope, though, is to see even more of the deep erotic love that is what drew me and so many of us to this scene in the first place. I love my friends. I love a lot about our scene. But I really don’t want to hang out in a supposedly deeply sexuality-based network of people unless we’re truly sexually-based in significant ways. And I don’t think we can do so properly be unless we honor the eros, the love, from which that sexuality emanates.
It is only by keeping the force of eros alive that I feel our scene has a future that will not be a superficial, cardboard cutout version of what could otherwise be so beautiful and meaningful. My concern is that if we do not do so this beautiful network of kinksters that I’ve come to love and cherish over the decades will become but a social club into which people come and go with all the forethought and contemplation of joining a bowling league. That might be fine for some, but that would sadden me considerably.
Love each other. Be kind to each other. Connect and bond with each other. Have sex and play with each other. Be the kind of kinky person you want to be. And never forget to have fun, and especially to love, really truly love, along the way.
Thank you for your time. I love you all and wish you a happy, healthy, kinky, and fun life. Which is exactly what you deserve. Go forth and love and be loved. Good evening.