From Issue 4.0 - September/October 1997
Well, fellow pervs and connoisseurs of kink, it's finally happened. S/M's gone mainstream. It's being pumped into the corpus of society like an IV drip from an enema bag.
It's not like we didn't see it coming. Trent Reznor wore a ball gag on MTV, and the Marquis deSade became excessively flatulent in his grave. Madonna got moderately kinky in Sex, and old Leo Masoch's hungry ghost let out a discontented belch.
We -- both the royal "we" and the ostensible siblinghood-of-perverts -- always knew S/M was destined for overwhelming popularity. How could it not be? Clearly sickos are having way more fun than the rest of the world. Pervs, as a rule, have more sex, better sex, and infinitely more stylish sex than the vanilloids who fill the strip malls and Honda Accords of America. It's only natural that said vanilloids, sooner or later, would wise up and want some o' dat.
And it isn't that far for them to go. Isn't kink at the core of this whole society? Isn't power exchange -- usually non-consensual power exchange -- the fuel that runs this nasty world? Doesn't capitalism get us in a headlock and growl "suck my jock, boy!" every single day? It makes sense to me that with all the kinks and power imbalances in the workaday world, consensual S/M -- explicit and negotiated -- would gradually come to the forefront of the existing sexual culture.
This seems to be part of a pattern. Among "normal people" (e.g., vanilla heterosexuals), oral sex grew in popularity in the radical sixties until it became, for many, almost a cultural assumption. Anal sex became more and more common in the permissive seventies. Due to AIDS, the eighties were, for many people, about fear and mourning, and for others about learning to communicate their needs for safety and negotiation around sex. For still others, the eighties were about Flock of Seagulls, coke, and stirrup pants instead of sex. It only seems natural that the nineties, with their end-of-the-millennium sense of impending doom, are bringing about a widespread awareness of and interest in S/M, kink, fetish, genital jewelry, and all their perverted brethren.
Movies and books about kink are everywhere, both kink-positive and kink-ambiguous, but there's a striking lack of truly kink-negative stuff in recent years. Jokes about S/M show up on prime-time sitcoms. Keanu wears leather pants on the cover of Vanity Fair. Lollapaloosers slam-dance while shuffling their ampallangs. It's only a matter of time before Chelsea Clinton gets a nipple piercing. I have glimpsed the future, and lemme tell ya, it ain't Star Trek.
But don't be so sure that you can finally get that NEA grant for your dildo sculptures, because even with S/M imagery everywhere, we're sure not living in an S/M utopia -- not now, and probably not ever. It will be a long damn time before there are two floggers in every pot and you can pick up a Wurtenburg pinwheel at Macy's or FAO Schwartz. No matter how much Bob and Barbara Boring might like the idea of kink, most of its new popularity is a fair-weather perversion.
"All it means," says author, activist, and radical pervert Pat Califia, "is that the entertainment machine is incredibly hungry and amoral, and will exploit anything that it can. Yes, that operates to our advantage in some ways, because it does increase our visibility and it does send a message to people who are looking for it that kinky sex is out there. But that increased visibility is of absolutely no use when we need to do things like fight the Spanner case or the Little Sisters bookstore case." The pop culture leviathan couldn't give two sloppy fucks about the lives and liberties of perverts. Califia points to Madonna's Sex as an example of that indifference. "Sex whizzed through Canadian customs like someone had lit a fire under its ass because Time/Warner attorneys had met with Canadian customs officials and a policy decision was made to let Sex through. But my books, John Preston's books, and all sorts of other S/M publications are routinely confiscated."
So just because your cousin the Huey Lewis fan bought a cock-ring for her boyfriend, don't worry -- we're not in danger of being assimilated any time soon. When the shit hits the fan, it's still the pervs who are going to have to duck.
With the World Wide Web growing like bamboo, it has become possible to access enormous amounts of information with great ease. And what do you think Biff Normal in Truck Stop, Oklahoma is going to want to access? You guessed it. He wants some o 'dat. Susie Average in Department Store, Illinois? She wants to download pictures of the Virgin Mary with a bullwhip, and she wants a dog collar for Christmas. Or maybe a fourteen-inch strap-on with which to invade Biff's bourgeois sensibilities.
It is now possible for people who live almost anywhere in the world to receive vast amounts of kinky images and information without having to look a sleazy biker sales clerk in the eye through a cloud of cigar smoke and say, "Uh, well, yes, I would like a bag for my copy of Transsexual Latex Enema Nurses VXIII, if it's not too much trouble." In the computer age, on the other hand, we have almost no security -- some 13-year-old computer geek in Arkansas could be monitoring your downloads from the transsexual latex enema nurse home page -- but you probably don't worry about it. Information piracy by computer is too abstract for most people to conceptualize, unlike the shame many people feel facing a postal clerk who frowns in disgust as he hands them their copy of Puppy Love in one of those see-through plastic bags marked "THIS ITEM WAS DAMAGED IN TRANSIT."
But Web surfing, online cruising, and Internet chat rooms aren't necessarily all they're cracked up to be. Anyone who's ever received a "WAT ARE YOU WERING? i AM NAKID" Instant Message on AOL can tell you that much. The quality of the S/M information offered online isn't necessarily all that high. Theodore Sturgeon's Law (usually applied to science fiction) says that 90% of everything is crap, but old Ted never had cybersex. Any shmuck can design a web page. Once you get into AOL or Internet chats, you are doing the masochism tango among the great unwashed. Why, many's the night some hapless would-be master has ordered me to fuck my dog.
William Henkin, PhD, a San Francisco psychotherapist, S/M educator, and co-author of Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely, thinks there's a negative stage in the popularization of S/M. "That stage is where all the public stuff about S/M goes sour. For instance, I imagine we will see more people who saw S/M discussed on a talk show and thought it would be a great idea to handcuff their girlfriend or boyfriend and beat them bloody. The safety information about S/M usually follows a few steps behind the eroticization. There's a very real danger in any sophisticated sexuality if information does not accompany the play."
Cecilia Tan, pervert writer, S/M activist, and founder of Circlet Press, sees radical changes in the way information is distributed. The S/M community has been changed by the wide variety of books now available on S/M. "The thing that's so difficult now about the concept of an S/M community is that new people coming to S/M play don't have to join a community to get the information they need. It used to be that the only way to meet people who were into S/M was to go to the bars, or to the Society of Janus, the Eulenspiegel Society or the Fifteen. Now, even if you don't have a computer, you can get information about S/M in most large bookstores.
The future of S/M to me is about the rise of the power of the individual. The thing that's disturbing is that we -- the S/M community -- are becoming irrelevant, and we don't like that. We consider ourselves the guardians of safety and tradition, and now any schmoe anywhere in the country can pick up a book or get on the net or read some magazines and get concrete information about S/M. If we're going to be a viable community in the future, it will be because 'those people' -- the newer S/M players who maybe didn't come through the bars and the organizations -- and 'us people' -- the long-time community members -- work together to preserve the knowledge and traditions and increase our clout. If the community is to survive, we need to reach out to those who are finding S/M in new places and new ways."
Califia points out, "The only way you used to be able to get into S/M was to learn from someone who had done it. It was tyrannical and arbitrary, sure, but you actually had to go out and do S/M in order to learn about it. Nowadays, I think many of the people on the Internet who claim to be S/M experts have never actually done it. One of the problems with the glut of how-to books and other information is that it creates an impression that you can read a book or watch a video and learn how to do this stuff."
It is the fear, the darkness of S/M that attracted us perverts to it in the first place. We don't do it because it's safe, we make it safe because we want so very much to do it. If the seasoned players -- the ostensible elite of perversion, the guardians of Preston's leathers, the capos of the Kink Mafia -- forget why we joined the pervert club in the first place, we are never going to make sense to new players who wish to learn about it. We'll end up preaching to the converted, living in our own little box, and talking to ourselves.
When it comes down to it, for me S/M is about risk -- physical, emotional, and spiritual. It's about surviving when the shit hits the fan. It's about giving yourself up to a situation, a person, an activity, and getting yourself back -- stronger or weaker or maybe just different. Some things you can't learn from a book or a seminar -- you have to teach them to yourself. There is the illusion, sometimes -- in all that sex-positive, shiny happy information -- that S/M can be made 100% safe, sane, and consensual. But S/M has never been 100% safe for me, and I wouldn't want to do it if it were. When I do S/M I'm taking a risk that I'll find something strange and beautiful inside me or another person or a situation that scares the living shit out of me and maybe makes me look at things a different way -- a way that fucks with my world, and changes it, even just a little. It's a cliche' that S/M is supposed to be about "the dark side," whatever the hell that is. I think S/M is about shining a light inside yourself and others and finding out what's there, even if you're not so sure you want to know.
S/M is definitely a biohazard. It turns oppression in on itself, commodifies it, explores it, transforms it. If you think that doesn't frighten the jockeys off The Man, think again. He's quaking in his wingtips because we know all his secrets.
So, if you'll indulge me for a minute, the future of S/M is not in the meat, but in the motion. Not in the technology, but in what it is made to do. Pop culture spreads misinformation, but people who want to hear the truth will go to some lengths to find it. The folks "out there" in the real world -- whom I have half-assedly referred to as the mainstream, as if that existed -- are simply aching to hear what us kinky folks have to say. They are desperate to learn. But we must be willing to teach. The sources of misinformation will continue broadcasting their static and drowning out our truths if we let them.
I don't know about you, but I'm off to save the world. And believe me, the world needs it, bad. To save the world, we perverts must be honest and fearless. We must tell the truth, crusade against ignorance wherever we find it, and not take any shit.
And -- pay attention, now -- we must have some really fabulous clothes
to do it in. Who the fuck wants to join a revolution if they can't
dress snappy? Above all, no matter how thick the bullshit out there
gets, we must be wearing some really killer footwear. I've got my
spike heels on, you've got your combat boots, Butch over there's got
hir thigh-highs -- let's go open some minds. The future is here, my
fellow sick fucks. Let's make it beg for mercy.
Thomas S. Roche is a writer, performer and editor, and a
member of the training staff of San Francisco Sex Information. His
books include Dark Matter, Noirotica, Sons of Darkness, Brothers of
the Night, and Gargoyles. He is currently at work on a twelve-volume
historical slapstick set in ancient Crete tentatively entitled The
Brutal Night of the Subterranean Toaster-Dwarves.