Keynote for the 2013 MTTA Retreat
First, I want to thank you all for being here, and I also want to thank Master Taino for his tireless persistence in creating space outside of the BDSM demographic for people to focus and concentrate on living healthy power dynamics. I'm incredibly grateful for all he does to make space for this subject.
Today you probably thought that you were getting a speech from Raven the woo-woo guy, probably on something spiritual. While that does describe my workshop tomorrow, tonight -- in spite of the shaman coat, surprisingly -- you're actually getting Raven the activist. And I want talk to you about the past, and the future.
Many of us in power dynamic relationships are inspired by eras of the past. I'm not just talking about the leather bars of forty years ago. Some of us hang over documentaries or fictional dramas about ancient Romans and their slaves (anybody see HBO's "Rome" series and notice all the smart, competent, awesome slaves?), or medieval liege-fealty, or Renaissance servitors, or samurai and their households, or Victorian upper-class living, or even 1950s-era stuff. Sometimes we find pearls of wisdom. Sometimes we have to throw out a lot of irrelevant ideas, including some we may be glad don't happen today. We're inspired by these past examples of power exchange, and we might even find some of them pretty hot ... but the truth is, what we're doing isn't anything like them at its core. What we're doing has never been done before in history.
We're creating relationships of unequal power that are not only consensual, but negotiated down to the last detail. We work on going into them mindfully and thoughtfully. We use them to improve each other. We put a huge emphasis on the happiness of both people, and the responsibility involved in creating that happiness. We communicate about them all the time -- there are no great cultural injustices that have to remain unspoken or the whole edifice falls down. We do it not as part of a heavy burden of cultural oppression, but as a choice -- a choice that sometimes stands against the prevailing norms in our communities. We have no laws or social standards to back us up -- let's face it, no one is going to hunt down runaway slaves for us -- and many people would be horrified if they knew what we were doing. We have no standard cultural template to default to -- usually one that it doesn't pay to look at too hard, even if it doesn't fit well. Instead, we encourage each other to create these unequal relationships custom-built for each couple, from the ground up. After thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of years of human beings doing power-over in personal relationships astoundingly badly, here we are ... doing something that has never been done before in history.
That's not something to be ashamed of. That's incredibly subversive. Do you know just how subversive you are?
I know that once I got into a real, all-the-way-to-the-wall ownership situation with a real slave, both of us started to notice things. Things about power, in our own relationship and that of others. We noticed the power dynamic inherent in the situation when the cop stops you on the road, when you're in front of the judge, when you're in a classroom with a teacher, when you're facing down a waiter. We noticed the healthy egalitarian couples we knew, watched them pass power back and forth in an easy dance. We watched other couples fight over power, fighting over something that they couldn't -- or didn't dare -- articulate: "In this one situation, this one circumstance, I want to have the power. I want you to give in to me, and surrender." And yet we knew that was what they would have said, if they'd been honest. We knew that dance, only for us it ended differently: with honesty, and then with "...and this is what I will promise you in exchange," or "I promise that I will do everything I can to help you find a way to be OK with this, and that obligation is the price I pay for this power over you." We wanted to tell them, "It's OK -- there is a way to do this right, where no one is shamed and no one is oppressed ... and no one is enabled to behave badly." And that's something that we may be the only ones who notice: that to be the person on top and to be encouraged -- or even allowed, through apathy -- to behave badly and to harm others is soul-rotting. It's as bad for the master as it is for the slave.
We noticed when we ended up in power struggles with outsiders, and we wished that we could just sit the person down and discuss it in the language we'd learned over time to describe the dance of power -- and that they would have the same commitment to being clean about it that we do -- or, at least, that we encourage each other to do.
The last fifty years have seen people slowly doing the work of throwing out power dynamics that are nonconsensual and unhealthy, and in some cases regardless of whether they were nonconsensual and unhealthy. Contrary to the idea that we are throwbacks to the time when that was unquestioned, the truth is that we're the ones who are going out to the puddles, fishing through them to find the small number of consensual and healthy power dynamic babies that got thrown out with that very filthy bathwater ... and then we bring them inside, wash them up, and commit to keeping them clean. That's not an easy task. People have failed at it for a long time. Maybe we're tilting at windmills, but I'd like to believe it's just that this baby's time has come to grow.
In the past, the primary authority that told people what they could do in relationships was society. Both men and women bottomed to those social customs -- for economic survival, for the ability to remain part of their communities (which might come right back to economic survival), or because it never occurred to them to do it any other way. We've taken those old patterns and dissected them in the lab of modern sexuality, under the bright lights of communication and transparency and peer support. We've taken them apart, customized them, and put them back together. We know how that sucker works. We know how to be in control of it, rather than having it be in control of us. At the very least, we're learning, and we know more than people who've never thought about it. I won't say that we know it all, because it seems like every time I go back to MsC there's something more to learn, but I think that people who struggle against nonconsensual power, in and out of personal relationships, have a lot to learn from us ... if we can just figure out how to talk to them.
Right now, the demographic of people who live in a mindful, conscious power dynamic relationship is growing. We're attracting people from all over, of all ages ... and of all lifestyle inspirations. It's not just Leather and Goreans any more -- there are people with dozens of different styles, some without names because that couple just made up their own unique style. There are people in nonsexual service relationships and married couples who -- gasp! -- don't and never have practiced BDSM or kinky sex (and are reluctant to come into our demographic because they are worried that they won't fit in.) There are people in many different M/s styles trumpeting that their style is the height of Right Way To Do M/s, and there are also people all over the place who think they're hearing that, whether or not it's actually being said -- because, if nothing else, they aren't hearing themselves included in the discussion. In other words, we have got to the point where we don't really know who we are and aren't any more, who is included in the magic circle.
But this is a stage of growing pains that other movements have already seen. (Yes, folks, we're a "movement". Does that surprise you? Guess what: When you develop activists, you're a movement. We're a movement in its infancy, but you gotta start somewhere.) The GLBT people have been here already -- are drag queens and leatherpeople in the same boat as Log Cabin Republicans? The polyamory movement is a few steps ahead of us -- are they in the same boat as Mormon and Muslim polygamists? Who are we worried about being in the same boat with? I'm not talking about serial killers, I'm talking about well-meaning people that make you a little uncomfortable to be in the same movement with. Maybe for you that's the Surrendered Wives or the Domestic Discipline people, or the Christian conservatives, or the Goreans, or the poly genderqueer TNG-ers with facial piercings and ratty clothing, or the people who dress like they came out of a Renfair, or the household I found on the Internet who have created a Master/slave Jaguar Cult complete with fancy rituals and great big headdresses. Maybe for you, it's the people who desperately want to see their customs and protocols become the community norm everywhere, so that they can feel at home wherever they go. Maybe for you, it's the people who would rather eat broken glass than bottom to someone else's protocols or community customs.
Maybe for you, that's the person sitting across the table from you right now.
Except we're here, and there are more of us all the time, and we have to learn to not only make space for each other, but to appreciate and learn from each other. Not only that, but we need to reach out of our swiftly growing demographic, made up of its random small communities, into places where people don't know anything about what we do except for the unsavory rumors -- and there's someone sitting in the back row feeling ashamed of their desires who desperately needs to know that there is a real, honest option besides shame and hiding. I was that person once. Maybe you were too. Don't let them down, like we were let down. Talk about it -- not as kinky sex, but as relationship choice. In fact, this is my first challenge for you all: at least once a year, find a way -- if only anonymously -- to get this message across to someone on the outside who needs it. And if you can't come out of the closet to anyone for some reason, sponsor someone who's taken on that job. People need to know that we are here, we are healthy, and we're not interested in oppressing them.
That's why I don't like pseudo-scientific theories about what broad category of people ought or ought not to be genetically dominant or submissive. Of course, half my dislike is based in the fact that those theories are usually sexist, and heterosexist, but the other half resides in the fact that this assumes that what we do requires some justification beyond "We chose to do this because it makes us happy and fulfilled. If we were the only people on the planet doing it, we'd still be doing it." That's the kind of justification that changes worlds, and changes people's minds.
My second challenge to you is one that I think is best illustrated by an anecdote. Recently on an Internet list that provides support to Master/slave relationships, a submissive woman came on with a problem. Her seventeen-year-old daughter kept asking her why she always deferred to her husband, and was encouraging her to stand up to him and get her way. The woman felt too embarrassed -- and, to be honest, a little too shamed -- to explain to her teenager that they were M/s, so out of nervousness she babbled something about the Bible saying that women should defer to their husbands. "I don't even believe that," she said, "but I couldn't think of anything else to say." Her daughter told her that she was weak and stupid, and was disgusted with her. I told her what I wished could be said to every teenager, which was this:
"Honey, there are a lot of different kinds of relationships. Some people like to have everything equal between them. Some people are more comfortable if they're in charge of the relationship, and some are more comfortable if they can let the other person be in charge. I happen to be one of those people, and it makes me a lot more comfortable to let your dad be in charge of the big things. We were lucky that we found each other, because if people don't match up well in this way, there can be a lot of fighting."
"Someday you'll figure out what you want in a serious relationship. Maybe you'll want everything egalitarian. Maybe you'll want to be in charge, and have someone who follows you, like your dad. Maybe you'll want someone else to be in charge, like me. Whatever you choose, just understand that you need to pick someone who wants the same thing that you want, and you should talk it all out first to make sure that you both want the same things. I hope that someday you find what makes you happy, as happy as we've been, doing whichever you discover is your way."
This explanation has the benefits of:
A) not mentioning M/s or D/s or anything kinky,
B) not being gender essentialist, in case she is a future domme (or just egalitarian),
C) actually being something she can take with her and use,
D) being entirely true.
The mother wrote in the next day, saying that she'd taken this information and had a heart-to-heart with her daughter, and at the end of it the girl had kissed her and said she was glad her mom was happy.
This lesson had come home to me this year, actually. My own daughter, who is 27 now, has been a very dominant person from birth. In her teens she had boys kissing her boots for Doritos. No, really -- I remember coming into the house when she was a teenager, and there were three boys flocking around her while she held forth about horseback riding, and one of them gestured to her open bag of Doritos and asked for some. She said, "You know what to do," and he got down and kissed her riding boots. At which point I said, "Time to teach this girl some basic concepts like honor and noblesse oblige."
However, I didn't explain to her how power dynamic relationships actually work ... and as an adult, she chose to be egalitarian. Then she recently visited our home state for a few months after the breakup of her last egalitarian relationship, and she came to me and asked, "So tell me about this power exchange stuff. Because I think that's what's been going wrong." See, apparently the last boyfriend was not so great with money, and she gave him the ultimatum of either getting his financial situation in order or turning everything over to her -- bank accounts, house, mortgage, everything -- and she'd see that the bills were paid. She felt this was a perfectly reasonable option. I had to say, "Honey, that's not usually the sort of thing that egalitarian people think is reasonable."
I'll never forget what she said next: "But I just kept waiting for him to figure out that everything went better when he just did what I said!"
How do we give parents ways to talk to their budding teens about the different ways in which people can choose to structure their relationships with regard to power and authority? How do we do that without resorting to some platitude that doesn't give them the full story, and leaves out many possible paths? I'm not saying that we have all the answers just yet, but it's something we need to be thinking about. Because if someone had explained that to me, when I was a teenager thinking that there was something wrong with me, it would have helped so many things! (Really, I watched Peanuts movies and wondered why Peppermint Pattie got so upset with Marcie. When I was in grade school, I would have loved someone to follow me around and call me Sir.) This is my second challenge to you -- to find a way to put the information out so that young people can know about it ... because they really are the future.
But what about our own demographic, our own bouquet of small and variable communities? I'll bring us back to the present now. There's a scourge here that we like to think we've taken care of, but it's not gone yet -- and the more people who will find their way here, hesitantly and fumblingly out of the darkness, the more often we'll keep seeing it. This scourge is something we must make a group effort to eradicate, and that is shame. We all know that monster. We've felt it. We may even feel it still, for a moment, before we stamp it out again. Masters may feel it in that moment when they see people misusing power, and are confronted with people who believe that they're no different. Slaves may feel it every time someone goes on about how everyone should be independent, or have ambitions. Sometimes we get angry instead, but it's likely that our rage was triggered by a fleeting moment of shame that we resented having, and it set us off. And it's not hard to help -- one of the best medicines for shame is to have someone look you in the eye and say, "This is a good thing. You're doing a good thing. You deserve to be proud."
I've talked to a lot of different people in this demographic, mostly in the course of interviewing them for books, and I have to say that while we could all use that reassurance, the people who need it the most are the ones in female dominant/male submissive relationships. Especially the boys. Heterosexual male submissives, as far as we can tell, are the least likely to reach out for help or support, and the most likely to feel cripplingly ashamed of what they are when they first come into this demographic. So keep that in mind when you go off to compliment people.
In fact, this is my final challenge to you: Tell other M/s couples (and triples, and households) how proud they ought to be, but especially go out and tell people who are doing it very differently than the way you're doing it. Especially if they're doing it in a way that you can't imagine doing yourself, but they all seem to be happy and healthy. All it takes is a word. Stamp out shame wherever you see it, and light up someone's day.
Now I am going to revert to Raven the woo-woo guy, because I'm going to give you all a blessing. It's kind of a left-handed blessing, because I'm kind of a left-handed guy, but still.
May you be blessed with knowing just how subversive you can be, and with knowing exactly where to use that. May the Powers That Be give you lots of opportunities to teach, and the savviness to know what language to speak in. And may you never forget that you need no justification except: "We chose this because it made us happy. And that is a beautiful thing."