Saturday, July 31, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part IV: For Those Who Wonder Why

Our culture is filled with preconceptions. One is that religious groups must have a binding creed or dogma, often rooted in a particular mythological narrative. Is it any wonder, then, that many are confused when first hearing about Unitarian Universalism – a pluralistic and non-creedal faith movement? And I’m sure many other UUs out there have experienced the frustration of trying to describe our movement to someone who simply cannot get past their preconception of what a religion ought to be.

Likewise, many of us have inherited preconceptions about sexuality and relationships. One of the biggest is that, since sex is supposed to be pleasurable, and since the opposite of pleasure is pain, then the very idea of being sexually aroused by pain is, well… you get the idea.

Closely related to that is fear. We kinksters often play with fear, uncertainty, and other otherwise unpleasant emotional states. And, just as with pain, that goes against what the vast majority of us have learned about sex and intimate relationships. You’re supposed to be loving and gentle with your partner, feed them strawberries and give good hugs … not scare the bejeezus out of them!

Well, what if they want to be scared? What if they are wired in such a way that they need more extreme stimulus than the average person?

And it’s not like vanilla folks avoid fear and pain completely. How many of you love going to scary movies or riding really wild roller-coasters? Or ordered the extra-spicy Buffalo wings, or more exotic fare like Icelandic cured shark? How many of you out there have run a marathon or lifted weights, and continued even when every muscle in your body screamed with pain? Or done bungee-jumping, hang-gliding or parachuting, even when – or because – it scared the bejeezus out of you?

The fact is that context is very important to how scary or painful we perceive an experience to be. One time when I was a kid, we were rushing out of the house before sunrise for a long drive to my grandparents. I grabbed what I thought was a pitcher of orange juice, hastily poured a glass, and found myself unexpectedly drinking grapefruit juice. It would take years before I drank another glass of grapefruit juice, and it was from that I learned about how your state of mind can affect your perception of reality. And that in turn would help me later in understanding how my submissive play partners so thoroughly enjoyed otherwise painful or frightening experiences, just as some enjoy intensely spicy foods or wild amusement park rides while others may shudder at the thought of them.

Delivering such experiences is no easy task. Just as you need an instructor to guide you in parachuting or bungee-jumping, so BDSM practices require specific knowledge and skills to be done right. There also needs to be full communication between partners, if both are to enjoy the experience they share.

But for many outside of the Scene, the question still remains: Why do these particular things? The exact answer can vary from one individual to another, but overall it is because it’s not simply about intense emotions and sensations. It is also about trusting another, exploring the primal depths of our desires, and creating a safe place to dance with the shadow part of ourselves.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part III: Playing with Power

We UUs have, to put it mildly, a rather ambivalent relationship with power. On the one hand, we come across as extreme individualists; on the other, we retain many of the structures and trappings of our Protestant Christian forebears. We detest creeds and shibboleths, constantly reviewing and questioning every jot and tittle of the covenants and affirmations which hold us together, arguing over resolutions and forcefully asserting our right to disagree. Yet we still call ministers, elect congregational boards, and turn to district and national staff for guidance. And even then, there will be those who complain that all these elected and appointed elites have “too much power” for their tastes.

Perhaps this is a core reason why so many UUs are uneasy with BDSM. It’s not the flogging or the bondage gear or the fetish attire – it’s the issue of power, of one person being dominant and the other submissive. To be more specific, it’s about assumptions regarding power, and how those assumptions can cloud our perception of the reality of D/s relationships. Longtime leatherman Hardy Haberman sums it up best:

For most of the world, domination is a sign of anger and suppression, yet in the context of a leather scene it can be an act of caring and affection. As children we were taught that submission is a sign of weakness, yet in our realm submission becomes a voluntary surrender of power and an act worthy of respect.

Dominants do not simply demand power from a submissive, nor does the submissive simply bow down at any given dominant’s command. The healthy D/s relationship is one of continual communication, negotiation and mutual growth – just as in any other human relationship, including those we find in spiritual community. And while D/s relationships may be overtly hierarchical, they begin from an equal footing, with each partner retaining the right to call for a reassessment of their relationship dynamics.

This is not to say that we don’t have kinksters with their own issues about power and control. But the BDSM community is in many ways a paradigm of an explicitly covenantal community. From customs and etiquette to written rules and contracts, we are constantly negotiating and delineating how we interact with one another, and what it means to be part of our tribe.

“But don’t we do that in UU circles, too?” Sure, although I’d say a considerable number of UUs do so “under protest” – that is, they’d rather not have to deal with power structures within our movement. Even more so in personal relationships, where feminist and progressive sensibilities presume that partners must be completely equal. Problem is, what if you don’t want to be always equal all the time? If equality is imposed – whether by rule of law or force of habit – how is that better than imposing hierarchical relationships? On the other hand, if the partners in a relationship mutually agree to other models for sharing and entrusting power, and they are happy in such an arrangement, how is that worse than any other?

Lord Acton is famous for the warning: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – and you’ll note the emphasis added. When we consider power as a tool, a means to an end, then we are more likely to use it with balance, and to learn when and with whom it can be entrusted. It is when we see power as an end in itself, even as an entity unto itself, that we run into the dangers we so often fear.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part II: Pushing Limits

This summer is my tenth anniversary when I first entered the realm of kink. I was having a summer fling with a wonderful young lady, when she asked if I would be willing to do some role-play. Not just any role-play, mind you. Dark, edgy, downright scary stuff. And it took quite a bit of convincing to get me there, and more work to process the intense emotional after-effects.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

BDSM is not easy. It takes learning not only various skills, but learning about oneself and the connection between what we do and the why behind it all. Still, there is a balance between allowing individuals to choose and affirm what speaks to them, and encouraging them to push their limits.

“Pushing limits” is a common phrase within the world of kink. Often it refers to a skilled top or dominant taking a bottom or submissive to the edge of where they want to go – their “limit” – and then carefully and skillfully “pushing” them just a little further. Yet it can also go the other way, just as my first experience pushed me past a limit I thought I’d never cross.

Limits are important for defining who we are, especially our desires and emotional needs. Yet they are not always so clear cut. We often speak in BDSM circles of “hard” and “soft” limits, and even so-called hard limits can be challenged in the right way. I remember hearing a woman describing her first experience with play piercing, which she had always feared because she expected it to be too painful for her to handle. When it was explained to her how it was actually done, and how the body typically reacted, she decided to try it under the guidance of a trusted and expert top. “Now,” she said, “I can’t get enough of it.”

Apply this ideal of pushing limits to spirituality and ethical thinking, and you have Unitarian Universalism at its best. Our whole history has been about pushing limits, from our early history of questioning Christian doctrines, to our evolution into a diverse and welcoming movement. Yet even with this history, we’re still human and too often fall short of that ideal. Where one limit has been pushed, another comes in its place.

An example of this is when, after describing myself as “heretical even by UU standards,” a young woman replied with wide eyes: “You mean … you’re a Republican?” Hilarious, yes, but what if a Republican or Libertarian who was attracted to our faith found herself surrounded by registered Democrats and Greens? What if a liberal Christian found that the only UU congregation in her area was overwhelmingly Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan, or a mixture thereof?

Such “what-if” scenarios have actually happened, and how we respond is the real test of our faith’s core values. And that includes those of us who engage in heretical forms of sexual expression, who not only push our own personal limits, but by our very existence challenge the assumption of how we may find joy and fulfillment in our relationships and erotic experiences.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part I: Being Prophetic Outlaws

A core reason I have worked to build a bridge between Unitarian Universalists and kinksters is that I can see where the two groups could learn from one another. With that in mind, my next few blog posts will be devoted to giving examples of that…

One of the most profound truisms of human nature is what’s been called the “hedonistic paradox” – that pursuing pleasure and happiness in itself will not accomplish those goals in the long run, but pursuing other things somehow does. In fact, what this teaches us is that pleasure is not a goal in itself, but a means of measuring success, and not just in terms of how much but the quality of enjoyment.

Unitarian Universalists seem caught in a similar paradox. We’re constantly asking ourselves how we can fill our pews and coffers, but more often falling short of that goal. That also begs the question: What if we attracted huge numbers of people who did nothing but come to Sunday services and toss money in the collection plate? That could hardly be called a spiritual community! Yet I would argue that, if we continue to focus on increasing numbers as a goal in itself, that is what we risk becoming.

Compare this to the BDSM community. Many of the groups I’m familiar with do not try very hard to recruit members in large numbers, yet they’re able to attract and maintain members much better than many UU congregations. Instead of demanding money from folks, they make an effort to keep their costs down, and in the end are able to balance their books while offering high-quality educational and support services, including most importantly a place to belong and contribute one’s own gifts.

All this, mind you, despite the fact that the kink community is seen as an “outlaw” culture – rebels on the fringe of society. In a puritanical society so conflicted about sexuality, we dare to create a community around our sexuality, and to celebrate the differences among us. More important, we dare to be honest about it, to say: “This is who we are, take it or leave it.”

And, in many ways, Unitarian Universalists come from that same outlaw archetype. As heretics and dissidents, we also provide a challenge to the rest of the world. Where other religions demand adherence to rigid creeds and legalistic moralism, we give our members an even greater challenge – to think about what it means to be good and just, regardless of any particular spiritual path you wish to follow.

So maybe, just maybe, we UUs have been going about this all wrong. Maybe instead of constantly trying to justify who we are and craft a mainstream image of ourselves, we should simply be more honest, even dare to say: This is who we are, take it or leave it. Martin Luther, another religious outlaw, said much the same thing at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”

That being said, we need to actually stand for something, to be rebels with a cause. After all, BDSM groups may be able to sustain themselves, but they haven’t changed the world much. Not for lack of trying, as evidenced by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and the increased attention given to kink issues at the NGLTF’s Creating Change conferences. And contrast that now with how Unitarian Universalists have created change and advanced social and environmental justice, often in far greater proportion to our numbers.

That is the gift which UUs have to offer the kink community – a strong sense of vision and mission. We’re not just here to keep our church buildings in good shape, teach our kids comparative religion, or plan the next Sunday service. We’re here to bring heaven and earth together, starting from our own individual efforts to embody the values of love and justice in our everyday lives. And from there, coming together to both create spiritual communities around those shared values, both as an example for the rest of the world, and as a place from which we can call on the world to follow that example.

We are outlaws whether we like it or not. We might as well be prophetic outlaws, not content merely to sit apart from the mainstream, but to engage and to challenge. And that includes challenging one another, pushing our own limits, learning to be more creative. But, that’s a topic for another time…

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Compassion for the Closeted - And the Real Hypocrisy Behind It

Recently someone on my Facebook list posted a link to a scandalous story. In it, the president of a prominent Catholic high school in the Midwest had been caught in a sex sting, groping an undercover police officer in a park notorious for anonymous gay sex.

You'll notice I've refused to give any personal details here. It's bad enough this fellow has been forced out of the closet in his home town. Does he really need a kinky heretic like me adding to his misery?

There are different reasons different people keep their sexual identity away from public view. Whatever that reason, we should lean towards respecting them. If the person in question is a public figure renowned for "promoting family values", then exposing such hypocrisy seems more important than privacy.

In this case, however, we're dealing with a private individual with no record of espousing anti-GLBT propaganda. Yet he's also caught in the dilemma of having to deny his desires for intimacy and pleasure out of obedience to church doctrine. Well, you can only do that for so long. Is it any wonder, then, that he resorted to such risky action?

So I feel compassion for this fellow, and I hope he can find a way to come to grips with his sexuality, and to reconcile it with his faith. I feel that way for so many who feel they are caught between competing desires - the erotic and spiritual - and hope that they and their families and communities will come to see that these need not be mutually exclusive.

What really bothers me is the real hypocrisy behind all of this. Men like this school administrator can confess their sins, do their penance, and be forgiven for what is seen as a temporary lapse in moral judgement. If, however, they chose to live in a committed loving relationship, then all bets are off. Thus the churches which continually condemn anything outside of "traditonal marriage" wind up showing greater tolerance for behavior which is furthest away from that ideal.

This is the problem with a sexual moralism which fixates on form instead of being concerned with content. The forms are so many, contradictions and conundrums are inevitable. And in all of this, where is the value of love - not just for those who repent and obey church doctrine, but those who are willing to question bravely how those doctrines do more harm than good?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It Takes Both Sides to Build a Bridge

Let me begin this post with an apology. If I sound angry, frustrated, or just plain fed up, it has nothing to do with you personally. I’ve been trying to comfort the afflicted for quite some time; now I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to afflict the comfortable. If you feel you don’t deserve the harshness of this message, please remember that there are those who do, or who fail to grasp how harsh silence can be. So, with that in mind, here goes …

As I went through the process of formally joining my congregation, I made it clear to the senior minister that I am openly kinky, and that part of my reason for joining was to help build a bridge between the two communities. And I asked her if she and the congregation were ready for that – to see more kinky folks come into the church, even reach out to the BDSM community, so that people on both sides might share their spiritual gifts with one another, and work together for justice and understanding.

She said that she believed that was possible, and that she could see me in that role of bridge builder. It was encouraging and empowering.

And now, I’m beginning to wonder.

Yes, I’ve come a long way. I’ve never hidden being kinky or polyamorous to anyone in the congregation, and they’ve been great about it. I’ve had others come out to me, even thank me for being as out as I am. Others have shown their appreciation for helping them understand sexuality issues better, whether at a Sacred Eros meeting or in private.

Yet there are others who simply do not want to talk about it. I’ve heard of at least one person who left the congregation over it, even though I had offered to answer any questions or concerns they had. And there are plenty of kinky and poly folks who have come to worship services or other events, found it a warm and inviting place, perhaps even a spiritual home, yet remain wary of going any further than “just visiting.”

I’ve heard from other UU kinksters in other congregations, and the news isn’t always pleasant. Many feel they must remain in the closet, because it’s clear that others are not comfortable with their presence. One woman told how she was hauled before a committee, questioned at length, then told to sign a one-sided covenant which would have barred her from so much as mentioning BDSM with anyone else, while the committee could selectively out her to others. Another told me that, after coming out to the new minister in private (as he had done when he joined years before) he was told it “would be for the best” if he simply left.

Granted, there will always be some who refuse to listen or understand. Even when the bridge is clearly before them, they will not walk across it, or welcome any who come from the other side. The real problem, however, is that there’s no bridge to speak of. Those of us who are kinky UUs often feel as though we have to swim back and forth between the shores, while the folks on either side expect us to build the bridge all by ourselves.

So, let me make it plain. Swimming from shore to shore is exhausting. And it takes more than one or a few hardy souls to build that bridge, and certainly not from one side alone. It takes both sides to build a bridge.

Unitarian Universalists cannot simply wait for BDSM folks to swim over. We’re already in your congregations, worshiping and serving alongside you. Many are silent, because they’ve already heard ignorant and fearful things said about them from others in the pews, or even from the pulpit. And the very reason I chose to come out to the members of my congregation is that I know from those silent kinfolk how soul-scarring that is.

That has to end. And, frankly, I can’t do it all by myself, nor can other kinky UUs be expected to do what I do all by themselves. We need ministers, educators, staff and lay leaders to join in. We need you to learn who we really are and what we’re really about. We need you to speak the truth in love whenever someone maligns us out of ignorance and fear. We need to welcome us as our whole selves, to see that the experience of our sexuality carries spiritual gifts worth sharing, and to encourage other UUs to do the same.

The same goes for those in the kink community. I have heard you talk for so long about changing laws and attitudes. Well, to do so will require allies, and you can’t just wait for them to come to you. You need to reach out to UU congregations, leaders and social justice organization. You need to help them understand what we kinksters have to go through. And yes, at the risk of sounding evangelical, you need to go to church, to understand who we are and what gifts we have to offer you.

Our two communities already have much in common, and much to offer one another – but that alone is not enough. The fact that so many UUs are so wary of us kinksters, and so many kinksters are so wary about church, tells me that we need more. We need to devote the time, resources and hard work to building that bridge, rather than assume that it’s already there. We need to realize that those of us with kinfolk on either side of the shore cannot afford to keep swimming from shore to shore. We need the experience of others who have built bridges, or who have enjoyed what has come over them, to lend a hand.