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November 1, 2018

It Takes a Village

Community Interpersonal CommunicationI delivered this speech on November 3, 2018 as the keynote address at Wicked in the West held in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Good evening. I’m having a great time here at Wicked in the West. I’m sure you are too. Thank you to everyone involved in creating and running this event. I know often producers and volunteers aren’t adequately thanked for all the work they do. So, let me act as a proxy for everyone in attendance and offer my thanks to anyone who had anything to do with organizing or running this fine event.

Also, thank you to the organizers for asking me as well as members of my leather family, Doc and Rene, to be here. And a special thanks to all of you in the audience. That you are taking the time to listen to what I have say today is an honor. I sincerely appreciate it.

Also, and I say this at the start of most of my speeches, I consider brevity to be a quality for which we should all strive, and I try to do the same. I promise not to hold your attention hostage for too long.

The topic of my speech today is one that I certainly hope resonates with you in the audience, but also with anyone who might hear or read it in the future.

The title of the speech is “It Takes a Village.” For those who might be familiar with contemporary American politics…

(Aside: …and if you are, let me say up front, I’m sorry. I assure you I had nothing to do with the current shitshow unfolding in my country right now. Many of us are working hard to fix the mess. Stay tuned…)

…anyway, It Takes a Village is the title of a book published in 1996 by former First Lady of the United States and Presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The subtitle of the book is And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.

Colloquially in my country the “It Takes a Village” phrase is often used to denote a situation for which the collective vision, efforts and skills of many are required to make something happen.

I’d like to focus that sentiment on our own leather, kink, BDSM and fetish scene because I think it’s incredibly pertinent and apt. It does take a village. And I could easily have subtitled this speech And Other Lessons Our Fellow Kinksters Teach Us.

Who are these fellow kinksters to which I allude? Many of them are represented in the audience here today.

Some might be men, women, fluid, or some other gender or non-gender designation.

Some might be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or somewhere else amid the orientation spectrum.

Some might be BDSMers, power dynamic explorers, fetishists, role players, sensation junkies, or some other specific flavor of sexual and erotic adventurer.

I could continue to parse out our overall set of communities into their respective categorical chunks but suffice it to say that I consider all of the overlapping definitions of who we are and what we do to be our strength, not our weakness.

As the actress and activist Angelina Jolie once said, “Our diversity is our strength. What a dull and pointless life it would be if everyone was the same.”

I agree.

However, with that said, I think when it comes to all these labels we need to be careful. For all their usefulness, they can be wielded as divisive weapons just as easily.

I read something recently by Zat Rana, a writer who writes works that play at the intersection of science, art and philosophy. He wrote:

“Humans like labels. We define ourselves by them. They get us through life, for the most part, more effectively than if we operated without them. But as we get comfortable relying on them, we forget something: Their utility is in what they accomplish, not what they represent. They are valuable, yes, but what they represent is an approximation — occasionally wrong, often problematic. You are not the words you define yourself by, and I am not the person with a disposition that can be captured by a written scene.”

Let’s not be held captive too much by all the labels we toss around in our scene. None of us here are just one thing. None of us. We are each and every one of us a composite of a multitude of ways of being human and ways of being kinky.

My favorite quote of all time is from Dr. Seuss and it’s applicable here: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

You, every one of you, are unique and unlike anyone else, even if the exteriors we project might signal otherwise. And let’s face it, often we project a sameness in our outward presentations (how we dress, act, play, function) which can be hot for some, but it’s monumentally problematic at times too.

Still, I’m going to have to utilize a few labels and categories here if this speech isn’t to come off as nonsensical and nebulous. Please bear with me.

Two of the hot topics in our scene these days, at least the North American scene, is how do we keep our various flavors and sectors of kink alive and vibrant, and how do we at the same time continue to build community, rally together for common causes, and share information and often sparse resources such as spaces and money.

Yes, we kinksters have other issues with which to contend these days, but these two seem to often percolate to the top of online and in-person discussions among our ranks.

It is these issues I’d like to focus on for the remainder of my talk to you today. And they tie in nicely to a lot of the work I do and have done building community and how we can all do that when our various needs and challenges appear to be disparate at times.

How do we foster a sense of togetherness?

How do we create, maintain and utilize our shared and separate resources?

And how do we do all of this without pissing each other off and throwing up our arms in despair over our differences?

Yes, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but let me be brave and give it a try. You can let me know later if any of this is useful.

So, how do we build and nurture community, and do so with the least amount of churn possible? And how do we keep the scene alive and vibrant for all of us, within our various subset communities and collectively as a whole?

Here are my thoughts. It’s how I view all of this. Your mileage may vary, but I hope you’ll seriously consider what I have to say.

As I’ve mentioned many times elsewhere, community is a tricky word. It’s uttered so often in our ranks that it often loses meaning. Attend any of our contests or gatherings at which a microphone is a part and you’re likely to hear the word bandied about many times.

Community, community, community.

It’s become a catchall word that at times can be so overbroad as to be malleable enough to fit just about any situation in which we find ourselves. That’s useful, but it’s a trap too.

Add on top of the word’s often fuzzy definition the fact that we’re not in fact a single community, at least not in my estimation. We’re in actuality a loosely aligned set of separate communities that overlap to greater or lesser degrees. That is why when I write or speak I most commonly refer to us as leather and kink “communities,” not “a” community.

We are by no means monolithic. BDSM practitioners, Master/slave and other power dynamic players, pups and Handlers, fisters, gear fetishists, rubberists, and countless other permutations of sexual outsiders primarily socialize with others who share their niche interests.

Then we’re further self-categorized by our sexual orientations, generational divides, ethnicities, genders, locales in which we live and play, and more.

Only occasionally do these various networks gather to commune when it suits their needs. Wicked in the West is one good example. My guess is if I talked to each of you in the audience privately for a few minutes, I’d find out you align with more than one subset kink community, and probably with quite a few of them.

Each of us is a rich tapestry of our innate natures, our experiential backgrounds, our individual fantasies, our intimate and extended relationships, and sadly, and this impacts many of us, the external community-facing presentation veneer we show everyone else that might not exactly reflect the reality of our internal selves.

Who we present to the world is sometimes who we think others want us to be, not truly us.

Let me digress here for just a moment. It’s a bit of a tangent, but I think this is perhaps more important for kinky folks than for most people.

Closely related to celebrating your uniqueness is understanding that ultimately only your opinion matters. Much of the suffering we force upon ourselves stems from our irrational need to impress others, even when those others are complete strangers. I put it this way:

Your happiness is in direct inverse proportion to how much you care what other people think.

Think about it for a moment. The more you care what other people think of you, your actions, your accomplishments, your possessions, your home, your looks, your status, your whatever, the less happy you’ll be.

On the other hand, the less you care about what people think about you, the happier you’ll be. It seems so simple, but in this conformist society of ours, and for all our kinky culture’s proclamations that we’re rebels and mavericks we conform a lot, it’s not easy to brush off other people’s opinions. But you need to work at it. The better you get at not caring what others think, the happier you’ll be.

I myself was held captive by my own top and dom created persona that held me back for years in exploring the full range of who I am erotically, and honoring the fact that our erotic selves usually change over time, sometimes dramatically.

Accepting this wide-ranging diversity reality is key to understanding how we can best build what academic researchers and civic leaders refer to as “social capital,” a label they use for networks of connection that build trust and collaboration by involving people in each other’s lives and projects.

What is it we want to build across these networks to encourage community among the pockets of radical sex folks?

Four things go into creating community: accepting our differences and honoring them; establishing trust, both within our kink network subsets and within the greater world of kink; identifying our common interests, our needs, objectives and the projects we want to work on; and figuring out the systems of communication and collaboration we’ll use to do all of this.

With all that said, let’s agree here, for the purposes of this talk, on a more formal dictionary definition of community as a unified body of individuals, people with common interests, perhaps located in close proximity to each other or not, with common characteristics, a shared history, and a shared social structure. In other words, us here in this room right now. We are indeed a community.

Remember, we leatherfolk and kinksters often operate under the assumption that we are all basically alike. We think we: like the exact same types of sex and erotic play; do sex, play and relationships similarly; like the same types of erotic garb; have the same cultural mores and rituals; and all position our kink identifies within the rest of our lives similarly.

None of this is universally true. We might have strong similarities, but every single person does all of that somewhat differently. We need to accept this reality if we’re ever going to get along, let alone build community.

Step one in building community? Embrace diversity. Judge others less.

The amount of harsh judgment that sometimes occurs within our scene is disheartening at best and potentially highly destructive at worst.

Whenever you are about to utter a harsh word of judgment, whenever you are about to jump on someone’s online post, whenever you want to declare to someone they’re doing whatever they’re doing wrong, which generally means not your way, pause. Take a nice long pause. Is what you’re about to say or write or do truly helpful? Is it judgmentalism based upon someone simply being different than you, not upon them doing something damaging to you or anyone else?

Embrace diversity. Judge others less.

Trust is a simple concept, but not always easy in the execution. To trust is to believe in the reliability, ability and truthfulness of a person or organization.

Step two in building community? Give no one a reason to distrust you or your club, group, organization or business.

Act honorably. Stick to the truth. Stifle any tendency to explode emotionally. Keep your commitments. Apologize when you fuck up. Make right anything you did wrong.

Your individual integrity, as well as the integrity of any group or organization of which you’re a part, is vital to ensuring a healthy community.

Give no one a reason to distrust you.

The identification of common interests is something we don’t always do. There is the mistaken view that everyone under the leather or kink umbrella have similar interests. That might have been a bit truer in the past when leather was easier to equate with those who shared a few specific erotic interests, but not today. Today we are increasingly split into those subsets of the larger kink whole and that trend is continuing. I don’t expect that trend to abate.

Our kinks and the related communities centered around those kinks are going to continue to diversify and span out across a wider set of people.

I think it behooves us to identify the “actual” areas of mutual interest and not assume what’s important to me is necessarily important to you. And vice versa.

This takes a lot of discussion and getting honest with ourselves about reality versus fantasy. Truth versus romanticized fiction. Don’t get me started about the Old Guard stuff. (To view my thoughts on this check out my The Truth About Old Guard post.)

Different people and groups may need and want different things. This seems difficult for many to accept but accept it we must.

If a women’s group needs their own women-only space, let them have it. If someone needs certain guidelines in place at a play party to feel safe, see if you can accommodate them without stepping on other people’s needs. If an organization starts a project they feel will serve many people, offer assistance even if you’re not sure you will benefit as much as others.

You also don’t have to understand someone else’s needs and desires to accommodate them. I can’t step into a heterosexual male sub’s mind and declare “oh, I know what they need and how they feel.” I can’t entirely role reverse with a dominant woman of color and truly understand their inner workings. I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the challenges a trans person faces. In truth, I can’t really know for sure everything going on in another white gay male 64-year old leatherman from San Francisco’s head. And all that’s OK.

What we need is for everyone to make a social pact. I have needs and desires that are important to me, and so do you. Let’s see how we can maximize each other’s opportunities without having to bend ourselves into contorted pretzels that take away so much of who we are as to make this kink thing we do no longer enjoyable or fulfilling.

Step three in building community? Help others get their needs met while staying true to yours. Don’t assume you fully understand your fellow kinksters but see how you can help them realize their kink nirvana, whatever that is.

But at the same time stay true to yourself and what you need and don’t apologize if your own needs clash with someone else’s as long as you don’t intentionally mean to do harm and you’re making every attempt to not negate them as fellow kinky travelers and human beings.

Identify your common interests, and honor your differences.

None of this can happen unless we communicate and collaborate. It’s ultimately about people talking together. Calmly. With an attitude of mutual support. No yelling. No snide snipes at dissenting opinions. No soapboxing. Simply talk. Trying to actually understand what others are saying.

These days we “talk” in many ways. Face-to-face talk is the ideal. Nothing replaces that. If you must leverage technology for communications, use video conferencing when you can. Seeing the other person makes a difference in true understanding. Phone calls and voice conferencing work well too. Email is useful, especially when people need to take time to craft their responses. Remember, not everyone feels comfortable with the written form. Give those folks ways to ensure their voices are heard.

One can’t discuss communication and collaboration without mentioning social media. Younger kinksters seem capable of using these mechanisms, but us older folks are coming around. Still, I’m astonished how often people don’t utilize social media adequately. Take the time to learn how to use social media to organize and promote.

Of course, building community is not just about committees, boards, clubs, organizations and events. All those are useful. However, real community is more a bottom up (no, not that kind of bottom) than a top down exercise. Individuals and their circle of friends can build their own micro community. Put together strong micro communities and you have a strong larger community. Think of micro communities as the building blocks of the larger community. Nurture the smaller to create the bigger.

In my city of San Francisco, we are extremely lucky to have one of the best leather and kink communities I’ve experienced. We seem to have figured out how to do this thing I’m calling building community. The various genders, orientations and interest groups have figured out how to claim their own spaces and events while still being part of the larger whole.

But I’m fully aware that we in San Francisco have the privilege of an extremely liberal and accepting city and culture with a long and rich leather and kink history. We have a large critical mass of kinksters who live and visit there. San Francisco just established an official Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District, opened a public leather history installation on one of our South of Market streets, and we are currently about to start construction on the first public plaza in front of the Eagle bar that’s dedicated to honoring the leather community with a permanent public gathering space.

I know that’s not the norm, at least not in most places.

But one of the things I’ve learned over time is that all politics is local. Well, so is kink ultimately. It’s nice to have a big, overarching sense of kink community, but the truth is our day-to-day experiences of kink are about what takes place locally. Our local hangouts. Groups and clubs in our area. Events we can attend. Sex and play parties and spaces we can actually walk into. People within a reasonable distance with whom we can commune.

Our location and the depth of community in that location dictate an awful lot of how we operate as a kinkster, and how we build that community.

For example, how much we can have separate versus inclusive spaces and events waxes and wanes a lot based on how many people are active in that area. This is one of the trickiest balancing acts we do in our scene.

Remember that one can’t always take a situation in one locale and transplant the same strategies for building and fostering community in their entirety. Your situation here in Edmonton and other parts of Canada and North America aren’t the same as mine in San Francisco or those in New York or Los Angeles or elsewhere. Your results may vary.

You must craft your own unique strategies to build and foster your own community in ways that meet your needs, remembering that each person’s needs and each subset community’s needs are likely to be at least somewhat different than your own.

Look around and assess who are your community’s constituents. What are their sexual orientations? What are their genders, ages and kinks? Who are they? Who are they really?

Recognize and respect the diversity. Withhold harsh judgment. You don’t have to understand someone else fully to respect who they are and what they need.

Talk to them. Find out their inner workings, their situations, their challenges, their successes and failures. Establish and foster trust. Nothing replaces being able to trust another person or group to do the right thing and act with integrity.

Determine what your local community needs. No two communities will be the same. What I need and want in San Francisco might be quite different than what you need and want in Edmonton or elsewhere. Once you know what people need, see what you can do to get everyone’s needs met as fully as possible without stepping too much on other people’s toes, realizing we all get our toes stepped on occasionally because that’s life. None of us gets everything we want.

You might not be able to attend a certain event, play at a certain party or participate in a specific discussion group because you don’t fit the demographic that they’re targeting. Live with that as comfortably as you can because if we dilute everything we do and how we function to a single common denominator our scene will not just get boring and dull, it will likely disintegrate because we all ultimately do this stuff we do because of deeply rooted erotic needs. If those aren’t met, we will flee, and we should.

Figure out ways to optimally communicate with each other. Calmly. Clearly. Effectively. Fully. Build in mechanisms to resolve conflicts in ways that try to not result in a winner and loser, but simply differing paths. Remember when communicating that each person and each group is doing so from their own unique perspective. So, misunderstandings are inevitable. Seek out ways to better learn about who is communicating, not just the words or messaging you’re hearing and interpreting through your own personal filters, which we all have more than we realize.

Communicate, really communicate, with each other. Author Bryant H. McGill once said “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Nothing could be more true.

Do all of this, and you’ll have a large community comprised of those smaller sets of communities that get along, share space even if not always at the same time, share resources even if those resources are used in different ways, commune together when it’s joyful and useful and separate into your respective corners when you need time with those of your own unique kind.

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. Good evening.

2 Comments on “It Takes a Village

Vanessa Bartosek
November 5, 2018 at 9:30 am

Thank you so much for your kind and wise words. Thank you for your decades of work. Thank you for being the kind and beautiful Soul that you are.

Shane Baker / jeirym
November 5, 2018 at 12:46 pm

Thank you for this.

I had to opt out of going to Wicked this year, due to financial & emotional issues. A few in my family were there, however.

This read, this speech, I felt deep in my core as I start to reach out and explore who I truly am as a person.

Thank you.

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