2014 Keynote Speech

Our Fifteen Minutes

Keynote speech by Ernest Greene (delivered by Nina Hartley)

Sin in the City 2014

Las Vegas


In 1983 The Southern California Society of Janus was the only organized pansexual BDSM social group in Los Angeles. Its membership numbered about 65 and all could fit comfortably in the meeting room of a small clubhouse in North Hollywood. The operating principle was diversity by necessity. It took guts, or perhaps a loose grasp on sanity, to be an out kinkster during Mr. Reagan’s morning in America and getting enough of them together to hold even a modest event required the inclusion of virtually all the willing. This gave rise to a rather odd but cordial alliance of BDSM oriented swingers, gay leather men and kinky het cross-dressers. It would be disingenuous to claim that the alliance was entirely harmonious. We didn’t all share the same opinions, the same interests or the same motivations for joining this tiny fringe group.

        However, we did hold certain common core beliefs upon which we constructed the rules in force at all our events, and by extension throughout what we thought of as our community. Those wishing to join were required to attend an orientation meeting first at which a senior member of the group introduced them to those rules in a clear and concise fashion.

        The most important precept, drummed into the heads of newcomers with all the subtlety of R. Lee Ermey chewing out a Marine recruit, was the centrality of consent to everything we did as a group and as individuals in dealing with one another. Our definition of consent was stern and unambiguous. It wasn’t simply the absence of “no.” It was a clear declaration of shared, enthusiastically embraced intentions to engage in specific acts negotiated in detail before anyone put a hand, much less a handcuff, on anyone else. We were taught that “no” means “no” and that once was enough. It didn’t mean: “come back in five minutes to see if I’ve changed my mind.”

        Again, it would be less than honest to deny that manipulation, particularly of the inexperienced, was unknown in our small world, or that violations of consent occurred. But these things were not tacitly accepted with a nudge and a wink and complaints to club officers were taken seriously. The one-strike rule applied. A single observed instance of one person pressuring another in the face of clear resistance meant immediate and permanent expulsion and exile. Given the lack of anywhere else to go, the threat of such action had long, sharp teeth.

        Likewise we emphasized the importance of confidentiality. Madonna hadn’t yet popularized corsets as street wear or written tongue-in-cheek top 40 odes to the pleasures of spanking. It was understood that ours were minority preferences of a highly controversial nature the exposure of which in the wrong place at the wrong time could cost people jobs, family ties and even custody of their own children. The rule was never to acknowledge one another in accidental public encounters lest it turn out that the playmate we bumped into at lunch in the local deli was there with the minister of his or her church. There was no effective way to discourage gossip, but we did contain it within our own circle.

        The final essential tenet was the primacy of safety. It has always been possible to injure oneself or another while engaged in BDSM practice and there was an accepted standard of mentoring before new play techniques were attempted. First, regardless of self-proclaimed role identity, one had the technique demonstrated by an expert on oneself. If that didn’t discourage further exploration, said technique was attempted with a partner under the direct supervision of the seasoned mentor. Thereafter, all further pursuit of a given interest was subject to immediate termination at the use of a safeword, which everyone had back then. When a few situations arose in which there appeared to be a disregard for either safety or safewords, the practice of designating dungeon monitors to oversee play activities at group events was instituted, and the authority of those entrusted with that thankless job was not to be questioned.

        These things were the foundations of what we came to call safe, sane and consensual BDSM. It was a catchy, easily remembered encapsulation of some rather complex ideas, but it served us well at the beginning, given our small numbers and the ease with which we could watch each other’s backs. It was also a limiting, somewhat defensive definition of who we were and what we stood for. The word “sane” seemed to imply that kinky people were of suspect rationality, even among their own kind. As such, it was freighted with shame and judgment over abstractions difficult to define. Is it sane to wear latex in a desert climate in July? We thought so but a casual observer might not agree, which was one reason we sought to avoid casual observation. We did not proselytize for our practices or recruit for our activities. We did not advertise our functions or reach out to potential joiners. You had to find us, usually through a direct, person-to-person social contact in the real world. That’s how I got in and that’s how the person who got me in got in.

        It would be easy to paint an idyllic picture of that era, and it was a lot of naughty fun to be engaged in sexy, secret activities with trusted acquaintances, but the approach that suited a group of sixty-five could not be applied to the vast influx of newcomers headed our way. Within five years our group grew from 65 to 750. Obviously, it was no longer possible for everyone to know everyone else personally or to prevent those who didn’t embrace the same ethics, or practice the same tolerance for differences, from gaining entry.

        What I saw happen was not unfamiliar. In the early days of the psychedelic drug culture, mind-altering substances were consumed primarily by college professors and graduate students and only under carefully controlled conditions. Clearly articulated exploratory goals were defined and understood. No one in Timothy Leary’s rarified circle of Harvard intellectuals envisioned back in 1965 that ten years later middle-school students would be dropping acid on their way to class.

        But that is the nature of a dynamic idea. It will not be contained to those who first thought to explore it and thereafter they will be unable to control its spread and the nature of its application. BDSM was just such a dynamic idea, and there was historical precedent for concern over it. The Marquis de Sade spent most of his adult life locked up for spreading this particular idea as much as for his reckless practice of it. None of us would favor the repression of sado-masochism per se, but Sade’s observation that libertinage leads to cruelty is not easily dismissed. A couple of centuries later Gore Vidal observed that when talk of sexual liberation is heard in the land, sadomasochism won’t be far behind.

        As old definitions of sexual morality began to dissolve with the emergence of more generalized social tolerance of sexual diversity, BDSM became first a trendy cult, then a widespread enthusiasm and finally a highly visible sub-culture within the larger society. Now it’s faddish and trendy and because far more people experiment with it, bringing along their own ideas of what it should be, it’s also significantly more perilous. In the early days it was recognized that, were we all to remain at large, a hard, bright line had to be drawn between sexual power play and domestic abuse. Sad to say, I don’t believe anyone could confidently insist, as we once did, that abusers are categorically excluded from what we consider our community. Indeed, under the onslaught of unsought popularity it’s become unclear that there even exists such a thing as a BDSM community or that any one set of principles now guarantees the safety of those who engage in BDSM.

        To some extent, the challenges we now face have their roots online. There’s always been a significant overlap between kink culture and nerd culture. Janus used to hold its meeting at the Los Angeles Science Fiction and Fantasy Club’s HQ. Before the Internet as we know it even existed, there were primitive BDSM BBS’s connecting perveratti enclaves around the country.

        But when BDSM met modern social media, the virtual BDSM world very quickly came to outnumber its “meatspace” equivalent. Suddenly a set of intimate practices limited to a growing but still vanishingly small part of the population became instantly accessible to millions. Arithmetic dictates that out of those numbers, most of which may have been generated by curiosity seekers just passing through, a certain percentage would stick and they would bring changes of every kind.

        A new vocabulary developed. Terms like “dynamic” and “lifestyle” and “M/s” would become descriptors for a more confident, amorphous, Burning Man style of electronic flash mobs springing up on Collar Me and Fet Life. Old timers would have to learn the difference between SSC and RACK, between cyber-only LDRs and IRL hook-ups that might grow out of those LDRs. The web didn’t so much unite us all as wire us all together however much or however little we might have in common.

        Once there were a few of us. Then there were a few thousand of us. Then there were millions of us and then there was Fifty Shades of Grey. Some of us worried about how what we still viewed as our community would absorb such vast numbers of people, much less inculcate them with the values we considered important.

        Those concerns turned out to be laughably arrogant. We didn’t absorb them. They absorbed us. It wouldn’t be long before strangers would be arguing bitterly in cyberspace over whether there had ever been such a thing as a leather community or if there even should be. Online you’re who you say you are and there is no one to prove otherwise. Online you don’t need to observe rudimentary good manners because you can always turn off the machine and erase anyone you don’t like or any idea you don’t like from the world you construct from a dizzying assortment of factional choices.

        I’m not going to say that’s bad. Some of the people we’re closest to now we first encountered by wire. We’ve exposed to fresh thinking that, if nothing else, compels us to sharpen our arguments for the beliefs we hold to the contrary. It’s convenient to know what events are happening where and when around the country and useful to exchange information with others whose interests differ from yours or whose knowledge can contribute to yours.

        But with visibility comes discord. There were good reasons why we stressed caution at the beginning, back when the leather wasn’t just a fashion statement. Bad things had happened before those early tenets were chiseled in stone and bad things have happened since those stones have begun to crack. There is very little solid consensus on any limits to be universally respected. A kind of reckless relativism exists forbidding outsiders from criticizing the sacred dynamic of anyone’s relationship, even in instances where that dynamic involves activities that are legally difficult to defend as consensual.

        At the least harmful level, this relativism comes down to whether or not it’s appropriate to walk one’s partner on a leash in public. Those of my generation would be inclined to say “nyet” to that one on consensuality grounds. A couple of parents out with the kids on a Saturday stroll haven’t given consent to be voyeuristic witnesses to somebody’s personal scene. But how is that different from gay people holding hands in public? Aren’t those who find it shocking or objectionable just bigots?

        That is a comparison I doubt any gay person fighting for the right to simply do what everybody else does, such as getting married and holding hands in public would be inclined to consider legitimate. One thing is about what you do and the other is about who you are.

        At this point, we can’t even agree on what we do, abbreviating all attempts to define it to the string of letter “W.I.I.W.D.” As Brendan Gill once said of a play he didn’t much enjoy, kink has become easier to deplore than to describe. That’s not without consequences. If there are no generally agreed definitions and no universally accepted rules of the road, the potential for abuse and exploitation is greatly magnified. Several sexual predators have, over the past few years, attempted to defend their activities against criminal prosecution by hiding behind a thin scrim of consensual BDSM rhetoric. Judges and juries haven’t shown much sympathy for that approach and it’s to their credit and our relief that they’ve rejected arguments that would blur the distinction between sex play between consenting adults and domestic violence by inflicted by sociopaths.

        While it’s easy enough to distance ourselves as a whole from the more obvious cases of false-flagging by criminal types, it’s more complex to sort through the chatter of good and bad ideas, attempting to support the former and discourage the latter without infringing on freedoms we don’t care to have circumscribed for us by outsiders. To them, we’re all equally weird and icky and the distinctions over which we often clash with great passion are pretty much meaningless. This does not make those distinctions meaningless to us.

        I’m not a great fan of FetLife, though I am on it from time to time, because I’ve found that any attempt to engage in an intelligent conversation with other thoughtful, educated folks who frequent the place will, within three posts, degenerate into a food fight among trolls. Bad ideas can crowd out good ones, and there are some very bad ideas indeed floating in the electronic soup of FetLife. There have been groups, now mostly shut down I’m happy to report, where participants shared advice on “bringing family members” into their “dynamic.” That’s stretching consent to the breaking point. There are still groups in which self-styled “owners” assert a right to retrieve “property,” meaning their human life partners, by force if necessary should they attempt to exit the once-agreed dynamic. That’s called kidnapping, and the fact that some who have been forcibly retrieved in this manner express gratitude for it, their opinions do not overrule statutory authority. Force someone from one room to the next and you’re committing kidnapping under federal law.

        Another disturbing development has been a visible rise in gender-essentialist politics in the world of online kink. One of the nicest features of the now passé leather world in which my generation took its first hesitant steps away from vanilla life was a refreshing lack of the rage over gender roles at full boil all around us. In our little safe space, gender carried absolutely no assumptions about behavior. Dominant women, submissive men, submissive women, dominant men, switches of all types and players of all inclinations were equally welcome as long as they played by the simple rules.

        It’s not uncommon online to encounter both men and women who believe that men and women are naturally one way or another. They aren’t naturally any way that isn’t filtered through their individual genetics and their early environments and claims to the contrary are dangerously mistaken. The bad rap on BDSM from feminists is that it reifies patriarchal norms.

I can no longer smugly dismiss that notion as I once did. I used to be able to just laugh off such criticisms with the suggestion that the critic actually meet a few of us and see just how little our erotic fascinations impact our broader world view. Now I fear the tilt is in the other direction. What our critics say about us is only important if we behave in ways that make them credible.

This is one reason why I find FSoG such bad news. For one thing, as a writer and an editor, I take bad work personally and as literature, it does not clear the bar. But that’s just my taste. What’s not a matter of taste is the extent to which the dreadful stereotype of Christian Grey – product of child abuse, tortured man-child unable to form a “normal” attachment based on affection, casual violator of every rule of informed consent – has become an object of desire among people who know no better. It’s comforting to just dismiss E.L. James’ bad books as just bad books, but bad books are not harmless. We don’t support freedom of speech because we consider it inconsequential. We support it because critical thinking is the best defense against the triumph of foolishness and there’s some foolishness abroad in our midst that needs to be answered with critical thinking.

I am not Christian Grey. I have never known anyone like Christian Grey in our world, though I’ve met plenty of screwy narcissists in Los Angeles at large. I do not want to be associated with this type of person and after years of pushing back against negative stereotypes from hostile outsiders I don’t welcome the necessity of cleansing a new set of toxic misconceptions closer to home.

I have no simple answers to the questions that now present themselves to us. I don’t know how to go about mentoring hoards of new arrivals, many of whom are already convinced they know everything worth knowing and consider those of us who have been here longer to be no better than censorious parents demanding respect on the basis of age alone. Yet we must try. We must not allow what we’ve learned to be unlearned lest it have to be relearned at an unacceptable cost in individual human misfortune and in the loss of the tolerance for which we’ve worked so hard for so long. What others do in our name will reflect on us and in every venue where we’re to be found we’ll need to address that problem one way or another.

Here’s my idea for a start. Though among hardcore cyber-heads there’s a lot of loose talk about the vices of the IRL community and I won’t insist that all of it’s unfounded, but ultimately nothing is more intimate than the sharing of our innermost sexual identities in private with others. If we’re to be safe in that vulnerability, we need to get to know each other better and resurrect the norms of common sense and common courtesy that really did exist, if not always triumph, in the days when we met face to face first.

Therefore I suggest we turn off the computers, get off our butts and meet each other in the human world. Whatever else we are and whatever it is we do and whatever we would prefer to believe, we are united by a common humanity. Our belief in that is being sorely tested by the sudden notoriety we find ourselves enjoying and we need to step up.

Let me close on a note of comfort. Fads come and go and I’m quite certain we’ll survive our current unnatural popularity and, if cooler heads prevail, benefit from it in the long run. There will be more of us, more different kinds of us and a bigger idea of what “us” can mean. That is an attainable goal and it’s up to us all, no matter how new to this we are or how long we’ve been here, to strive for it.