Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Lady Heather Paradox

The latest buzz in books these days is 50 Shades of Grey, the kinky romance by author E. L. James. Not only has it hit the New York Times best-seller list and garnered a movie deal, but it has provoked all sorts of discussion on television and the web. Why, so many pundits wonder, would so many women be attracted to a story of a young lady being drawn to a sadistic dominant?

Another question I’ve yet to see or hear being asked: Why is this news? Years before, the recurring character of Lady Heather presented BDSM with nuance and humanity to viewers of the hit series CSI. Around the same time, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader starred in the film Secretary, where Gyllenhaal’s Lee Holloway finds fulfillment and love as the submissive of Spader’s E. Edward Grey. Then there’s Rihanna’s hit song “S&M”, and the questions and controversy surrounding it as young people played it on their iPods and cell phones.

Still, there remains a paradox. While BDSM and fetishism have become more visible in mainstream media, it has yet to lead to a corresponding level of genuine awareness. More vanilla folks know that we exist, but not much more about who we kinksters really are. And we kinksters still remain huddled underground, bemoaning laws and attitudes that can cost us our jobs, homes, families and freedom.

Some would say it’s because so many kinkster revel in being part of an “outlaw” culture – wanting neither approval nor acceptance. But the kink community is large and diverse, and a more sizable group would prefer simply to be left alone. The problem is that neither rebellion nor isolation encourages the kind of change that would allow any given subculture to continue unencumbered. Such a desired state requires a sufficient understanding within the mainstream culture, which in turn requires mindful engagement on both sides. Outright rebellion often provokes reaction, while secrecy tends to breed suspicion.

Of course, many folks in the kink community will make the argument that secrecy is necessary. Given the current state of affairs, coming out to the world is risky – but this feeds a vicious cycle, because so long as kinksters don’t come out, the current state of affairs will persist. So once again we are caught in the paradox of letting fictional characters like Lady Heather speak for us, with the hope that it will lead to change, yet still lamenting the lack of change.

Others would argue that we do indeed have eloquent spokespersons, and that they convey a great deal through the news media. But take a closer look at who usually winds up engaging the media about BDSM – it’s usually prodommes talking about their clients, not soccer moms talking about their lives. Granted, prodommes have considerable expertise, but there’s also the fact that they convey a stereotypical exotic image, and thus maintaining distance between kink and the mainstream. So we may celebrate magazines like Salon interviewing dominatrices about “kink entering the mainstream” as progress, but in the end the very image those dommes portray reinforces the predominant view of BDSM and our community – and back we are in our paradox.

I’m not expecting a slew of middle-class and blue-collar kinksters to suddenly appear on news programs. Breaking a cycle so deeply ingrained takes a great deal of time and effort. The question is where to begin, and the best suggestion I can think of is our own neighborhoods. Just as the GLBT community engaged people one-on-one and in small groups of everyday people, kinksters can find ways to engage vanilla folks about who we really are and what we’re really about. From there we can truly move forward – but only if we’re willing to make the effort.

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