IMsLBB 2019 Keynote
This is the keynote address I gave at the 2019 International Ms Leather/Bootblack weekend, 11 – 14 April 2019.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we are standing on the ancestral lands of the Ohlone and Tamyen people. I want to pay respects to their elders past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today.
I noticed something recently. Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too. I’ve noticed that with the exception of in this hotel this weekend, that it’s gotten difficult to start a conversation about sex with good news. I realized that the highlights of my TV binge watching this winter featured 6 hours about R Kelly terrorizing young black women, and 2 hours about the emotional agony of two brave young men as they tried to reconcile the love and loyalty they had to Michael Jackson, the artist, with the betrayal they felt by Michael Jackson, the pedophile. And of course all that was preceded in the fall by the televised shitshow of another privileged white male supreme court nominee ducking responsibility for sexual misconduct. And if the video media wasn’t enough, I realized that a really high percentage of my reading list was filled with articles and emails from my students and colleagues on the international devastation being wrought by SESTA/FOSTA. A supposedly anti-sex-trafficking bill sloppily drafted with no input whatsoever from the sex workers whose lives would be irreparably harmed by it’s enforcement.
But this goes beyond media. I spent a fair portion of the past year in support of numerous traumatized survivors of a sexual predator within my own Urban Tantra community. I spent hours in closed online support groups and video meetings with attorneys, therapists, event producers, and of course the survivors themselves. Some nights I would crawl out of my office shaking and in tears, and ask Kate, “Is all this really my job?” And Kate, who is usually the first one to tell me to stop working and rest, would say, “This is your most important job.” I knew she was right. But I wondered, what happened to the Pleasure? Where is the love, the ecstasy, the connection, the yum?
I did not realize how out of balance I’d gotten till a friend of mine was astounded that I had not yet even heard of, much less seen the British documentary 100 Vaginas. [Google it.] I was shocked that I was among the last, instead of one of the first to see this phenomenally beautiful, radically honest film about female pleasure, power and beauty. How long had it been since I’d watched an affirmative, sex positive, shame healing and erotically uplifting film? I was profoundly shocked and sad to think that I’d let the soundtrack of my life become abuse and assault instead of pleasure, and love.
All of this was leaving me with a feeling of deja vu. I had flashbacks to the AIDS epidemic 30 years ago. Back then the meme was SEX = DEATH. Today, it’s SEX = ABUSE, SEX = ASSAULT, SEX = TRAUMA.
So I took a breath and said, okay, so what had I learned 30 years ago that could be applied to today. 1) This is not really about the sex. In the 1980’s the issue was most definitely really about the death—hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by an illness which was caused by the AIDS virus. And okay, it was a bit about the sex—-those deaths were also caused by the refusal of government and institutional leaders to respond in a timely manner because the illness was sexually transmitted and affecting primarily gay men.
Today as well, it’s not all about the sex. Sexual assault and abuse are not about the sex. They are about power. And control. And systemized misogyny. Sexual violence has been the most effective way of wielding that power, exerting that control, and reminding people with less power just who’s in charge here.
In the 80’s many if not most of the people I knew stopped having sex, because sex was a potentially life-threatening activity. Yet, not having sex was really not making anyone feel any safer. Or any healthier or any happier. It was obvious to me (and my erotic co-conspirators Annie Sprinkle and Joseph Kramer) that not only was repressing sex not any kind of permanent solution, it was also a waste of an opportunity. The sexual revolution of the 1970’s was in fact the celebration of gay liberation. The sex was wild, frequent, and often enhanced with drugs. When we were truthful with each other, many of us had explored this particular style of sex to such excess that we were ready to do sex differently. To do that, we had to imagine sex differently. Before we could change our behavior we needed to change our minds about what sex was, and what we wanted from it. In my circles, we wanted emotional and physical healing, we wanted true intimate connection with partners, we wanted a spiritual connection—a connection to something greater than ourselves, and yes, we still wanted mind-blowing orgasms. When we could name what we wanted—name our desires—name our big YESes, we put ourselves on the path to fulfilling them.
The past couple of years seem to offer another loud and insistent invitation to do sex differently. And once again, that involves a change of consciousness. It involves being more thoughtful, more prepared, and more willing and more practiced at having conversations about consent. This is a good thing. It’s not always an easy thing. Our intention is for consensual sex to be as natural and easy as practicing good manners.
We in the leather community are good at this. We have to be good at this. Whether you subscribe to safe sane and consensual, or risk aware consensual kink, we understand that consent is the first step in getting our wild, passionate, deep, sacred, groove on. We know the difference between enthusiasm and encouragement, vs. manipulation and coercion. We know what altered states of erotic consciousness can do to peoples’ desires and how to manage that.
We take risks. Intentionally. We’ve learned by trial and error the level of risk that produces the best sex and the best play for us. When something goes wrong we stop. We fix it. We apologize. We make amends. We do what we need to do to move into more pleasure.
And this is the key—it’s about the pleasure. The new meme can be SEX = PLEASURE. I believe that the leather community—and particularly this leather community can help turn this ship of sex around—away from abuse and toward pleasure. A whole lot of people in this room have known some kind of abuse and thank goddess we are part of a community that knows how to hold us as we heal so that we can return to the pleasure we were seeking in the first place. We know how to do this stuff. We can be of service as leaders for people who are finding this hard.
It’s difficult for people to change a lifetime of habits about how they do something. It can be exhausting and confusing and frustrating. And rightly so. When people begin to upend a system that has been upside down for so long it’s hard for them to know what right side up feels like. So they make mistakes. They often over correct, making something like safer sex (in the 80s) and consent (today) so tedious that people wind up more angry and frustrated than turned on. All of this is a normal part of the process. This is the stage we’re at now. It will go on for a while longer. However, I think we can help insure that the temporary over-corrections don’t become the permanent new normal.
When all our focus is on preventing something bad from happening, we have forgotten the point of why we are practicing safer sex, or getting consent in the first place. We are living in a time when entire cultures at home and abroad are being driven solely by NO—opposition to what they don’t want. No is important. Learning to hear and understand NO is important. But what about our YES? Yes to pleasure, yes to intimacy, yes to surrender, to spiritual realization or whatever your deep ecstatic YES is. We do not have to sacrifice our deep, erotic, ecstatic YESes to achieve consent. Quite the opposite. We need to prioritize them.
It all comes back to intention. What is our intention? Why do you do sex? What’s the big payoff—the reason why some of us have spent weeks or months organizing the scenes that are happening here this weekend? Clearly you have some pretty intense commitments to your orgasmic YESes. The world needs you now.
What the world needs is practice at identifying its individual and collective orgasmic YESes and then using all our skills to make those YESes happen.
The world need to understand that hard limits are not the focus of the journey. Hard limits are simply the things we avoid crashing into so that we can happily and safely arrive at the ecstatic.
The world need to understand nuance and the hierarchy of harm. As we know, all mistakes, miscalculations and fuck-ups are not created equal and should not be responded to equally. Some people simply need better mentoring by a more experienced top. Others require a jail sentence. We can help people learn the difference.
The world needs to understand that pleasure—not just trauma—requires aftercare. Aftercare is that sweet space where you get to integrate your ecstatic experience. The time when you can let it sink in and notice how you’re a little bit or a lot transformed by the pleasure. We will all have found our balance again when people can spend twice as much time savoring their pleasure as they did negotiating the agreement that led to that pleasure.
Our brains are wired to alert us to danger. This ancient wiring keeps potential threats and tragedies up front in our awareness as a survival mechanism. However, our present and future reality is shaped by our desires and our pleasures. You can’t repress pleasure, yet expect liberation, satisfaction and joy.
Is there an enthusiastic, orgasmic YES at the center of our work? Hell yes there is. This is a community that was built on YES, that thrives on YES. We are a community who knows how to teach YES to generations coming up behind us. We can get out into the world and remind people—especially college-age people—that safety and consent are so important, but on the pleasure scale, safety for it’s own sake is a very low bar. Pleasure is so much bigger than that. And pleasure is power.
What would we all be doing with our time and energy if we all made decisions based on a feeling of deep orgasmic erotic YES?
How would we organize and support our communities if we shifted our focus to what we long for and love rather than what we hate?
How many times have I heard a sex and pleasure positive person say “The reason sex is so feared by the establishment is that they know how powerful it is, and how impossible it would be to control a truly sexually empowered group of people.” I ask you then—why are we not using our superpowers?
Yes, being a out and proud sex and pleasure positive person can be scary right now. It’s kind of like taking a night stroll in Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town in the Australian outback. You might remember it from the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Anyway, the mining laws are kinda loose in Coober Pedy. You can pretty much drill straight down for many feet anywhere you want and when you’re done, you just pop a little warning flag next to hole and the pile of dirt you’ve dug out and walk away. There are signs all over Coober Pedy that warn you that even a moment of inattention to where you’re walking could land you at the bottom of one of these mines. That’s kinda what it’s like talking about sex from a sex positive, pleasure activist point of view these days.
People are highly sensitized and reactive. There are generational divides and all sorts of opinions among different communities on how to name and deal with past sexual conduct, and what the protocol should be moving forward.
It’s important to remember that although it might seem to look like these arguments among well meaning people are solely about harm reduction, the bottom line is that people are just trying to get back to being able to have some fun, some pleasure and some hot sex.
What’s your specific superpower? How can you use it to guide people back to pleasure? In your leather life? In the other lives you lead?
As Sharrin said on Friday night, all acts of sex and pleasure in these times are political acts—revolutionary acts. How can you serve the sex and pleasure revolution? How can you—as Toni Cade Bambara said—make the revolution irresistible?