What do we owe the people who give us authority?

There’s two ways to look at this question.  One in terms of power dynamics, the other in terms of community dynamics.  This post is going to focus on the latter, but catch me in person and I’ll likely be talking about the former.

I’ve written before about undeserved authority in BDSM, but I have more sympathy for them – for us – now that I did in 2012.  I say us because at this point I’m coming up on 7 years of organizing community based group events and 8 years of sharing my knowledge as a kink presenter.

One of the reasons I have more sympathy for those of us on the organizing side now is because I understand a truth that I didn’t before: you can’t really control who gives you authority. Now that doesn’t mean people in the scene/community/what have you don’t seek out authority for a multitude of reasons (to be the change they want to see, to share what they know, for ‘fame’, for sex), but some of us really do fall into the roles. We took over the event because there was no one else stepping up, taught the class because we had skills to share, joined a committee because someone asked after a night of drinking… And we did this outside of the full realization of what this meant, that people would grant us authority whether we wanted it or not.

I know, we’re a cute bunch, eh?

So what happens when you find yourself in a position of authority within the kink community?  I think that is the time to start wrestling with some Big Questions, all of which revolve around a theme:  What, if anything, you owe to your fellow BDSM’ers?

Call me a socialist, but I think we do owe something to the people we share space with, especially when those people are putting their trust in us. And I believe the more trust they give us, the more we owe them. The more we have to owe them because we have more of an ability to create chaos in their lives.

At a minimum  I believe we owe the people who put their trust in us respect and honesty.  Respect for their personhood.  Honesty about the spaces we create, the level of expertise we have (or don’t), and our intentions towards their daughters….  I’m just showing my age with that joke aren’t I?

Is there more than that? I started with a bigger list. It included words and phrases like vetting, vouched membership and creating safe event spaces. But are these even attainable goals? Recently someone asked me if they would get raped at an event I recommended. Put so bluntly, it upped the level of consideration I gave the question and I felt compelled to tell them the truest thing I could: It’s unlikely that you’ll experience a sexual assault at this event. You absolutely shouldn’t experience a sexual assault at this event. But can I promise you won’t? No, because I can’t make promises about other people’s behaviour.

I can’t promise people safety.  I don’t have that much power.

Neither do most of the people we grant authority in BDSM. Even the ones that got into their gigs for the most noble of reasons: to make the community better. And I would suggest there are many of us who get into kink organizing/leadership for this reason, to make our communities great, or give back to a community that was great to us. I feel for those people when the shine wears off. When they realize the often thankless effort that goes into organizing, and how little control they have over how their visions play out in the real world. It can be challenging and feel extremely defeating when what we want to provide for people isn’t actually in our power to deliver.

I believe however, we can take actions to make our communities safer, and I would add that to the list of things those in positions of authority owe to those who granted them that authority.  Respect.  Honestly.  Saferty.

Yeah.  Saferty.  If Oxford can go around just adding words, so can I , right?  Right?*

If you’re a authority figure in your community and don’t know where to start when it comes to making things safer here are the two things I always fall back on:

  1. Take action when you can

It’s true that we cannot know in advance who is going to be an absolutely awful addition to the kink community, but too often known problems are dismissed as drama, or gossip. Start by believing the people who make a point of speaking up. Investigate problems you hear about. Be a person people can address concerns with. This includes a lot but here are some places you can start: develop anti-harassment policies, make discipline procedures known, publish standards of behaviour for your events and above all, don’t engage in anything that makes you look unsafe to report to.

     2.  Promote Kink Literacy

Just as media literacy teaches people to be aware of bias and critical of messages they get from the media (think don’t believe everything you read), kink literacy teaches people to be aware of bias and critical of the messages they get from others within the kinkoverse.  Teach those around you to ask questions like, what’s the presenters bias or agenda? How did they get this knowledge?  What’s the organizer’s history within the local (or larger) community?  How did this space develop their event rules?

And yes, this means they will ask this of you too – and that’s okay. It’s okay to prove to people that you are worthy of their trust.

No one can make a space as safe as all of us can. No one can do as much good as all of us can. By promoting critical thinking with regards to authority and kink, teaching folks how to do their own research on presenters/teachers, or how to evaluate the claims handed to them upon their entry into the kinkoverse, we’re giving people the tools they need to have the best shot at thriving within kink subcultures. We’re helping them recognize red flags well before it’s too late to do anything about them and we make the fame junkies and silver lame hopefuls that much easier to spot.

Now, you may wrestle with the same questions and decide you don’t owe anyone anything. To that I suggest you don’t deserve the authority you’ve been granted. And I hope you get out of the mess you’re in without losing too much face.

*No.

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