Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Ethics of Outing

Since joining Arlington Street Church, I've found that I'm not alone there in terms of being kinky. There are two fellows who each hold different leadership positions, and who have also mentioned to me in private that they've attended Leather events. And the couple who moved to the suburbs, but decided not to go to another church because, as one whispered to me, "we're glad to see one of our own on Sunday worship."

You'll notice the emphases. Yes, I'm not alone as a kinkster at Arlington Street Church -- but I do seem to be the only one willing to be open about it. Still, it is not my place to "out" my fellow pervs, even within a kink-friendly environment like ASC. Despite the benefits to our community to have more people come out to friends and family, I believe that the process of coming out is primarily an act of self-determination.

But just as the GLBTQ community has had to face the likes of John Paulk, Ted Haggard and George Rekers, as BDSM and fetish sexuality becomes more visible -- and more a target of attack -- it is also likely that we will encounter someone who openly opposes us while secretly indulging in the very same behaviors they condemn and try to suppress. This is certainly something I have had to personally consider, as a new organization for Unitarian Universalist kinksters takes shape.

What, then, must we do?

Some within the BDSM community hold to a "never-ever" rule, that we should under no circumstances out anyone for being kinky, no matter what. Others believe it is justified to expose an opponent's hypocrisy, just as the anti-gay activists cited above were exposed in the media. One kinkster noted in an online discussion that the "never-ever" camp seems to be primarily or exclusively heterosexual, while the more "strategic outing" camp is predominantly GLBTQ.

There are few absolutes in life, as evidenced by the fact that I'm hetero and a supporter of the latter position. But I also believe that our community will need guidelines for determining when and how to implement such a decision. And this I am grateful for the work of many in the GLBTQ community who have given much careful thought to the issue, especially Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.

The rationale for "strategic outing"

Some may see a double standard here: How is it that I will not out my fellow kinksters in our kink-friendly church, but I will out kinky people if they do something bad?

First, let's be clear that we are not talking about members of the BDSM community, but people who openly oppose us. Just because they may engage in bondage, flogging or some of the others things that we do, does not automatically entitle them to community membership. If someone learned Spanish in secret, read and enjoyed Spanish literature in secret, and secretly thrilled to the sound of a Spanish-speaking voice, that doesn't mean they are part of the Spanish-speaking community -- even more so if they publicly insult Spanish and those who speak it, or try to get Spanish banned in public places.

Second, we're also not talking about "doing something bad" in general, but of specifically targeting and attacking kinksters. If a member of the BDSM community had done some questionable things within the community, then I believe it right that such conduct should be addressed within the community. And even if they had engaged in unethical conduct in their vanilla life, I don't see how outing them to the vanilla public serves any purpose.

Third, we're definitely not talking about punishing someone for secretly engaging in kink. We're talking about exposing hypocrisy, and for the expressed purpose of reducing and/or stopping their harmful actions towards us -- the equivalent of using reasonable force in self defense. If an anti-kink crusader justified their attacks on us based on "moral purity," and it turned out that same person was engaging in sexual infidelity, that is also hypocrisy, and the same rule applies. I believe the only time a person should actually be punished for their sexual conduct per se is when it is nonconsensual or otherwise abusive.

Suggestions for guidelines

If sexual minority communities are going to consider the option of strategic outing to defend ourselves from harm, then we will need ethical guidelines for determining when, why and how. I would like to propose three general principles:

1) Clear proof -- If we are to "speak truth to power," then we must be sure that we are indeed speaking the truth. Hearsay and innuendo are not evidence, any more than regarding Marcus Bachmann's so-called "flaming behavior" as evidence. And even when evidence is presented to us, we need to examine it carefully. Are there alternate explanations? Is it recent, or so far in the past as to be explained away? Could it even be a setup. Only when there is clear and reliable evidence should we even consider bringing it forward, lest we risk a considerable backlash.

2) Right motivation -- Our reason for doing this should also not stem from malice or a desire for revenge. Our goal is not to humiliate or punish an individual, but to address and put an end to harmful actions. If outing someone will only serve to do the former instead of the latter, then I believe it would be better to back off. This also connects to the next guiding principle...

3) Fair warning -- The person facing possible exposure deserves to at least be told that there is evidence of their hypocrisy, and to be provided both the options and the chance to change the course of their conduct for the better. Every effort should be made to engage the individual in question into dialogue, to present the evidence obtained, to explain our own motivations, and to propose alternate courses of actions. If the individual simply promises to refrain from further attacks against us, then there is no reason to expose them. If they choose to abandon their course altogether, and consider actually joining our community, then we should provide what support and guidance we can. And if the person chooses to out themselves, perhaps attempting to explain away their behavior, then the ball is now entirely in their court.

But if they refuse to engage in dialogue, or decide even afterwards to continue to do harm to our community, then I believe it is justified to present the evidence to reliable media outlets, along with an explanation of the the process of ethical discernment and engagement leading to that point. I hope indeed that the number of times such actions are deemed necessary are few -- but I also hope that we do so mindfully and with respect both for truth and for all people involved.