Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon: Leather & Grace

Delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA – June 24th, 2012

You may have noticed in the past few months that various news outlets have been reporting on how a British woman’s first novel, published out of small press in Australia, had reached the New York Times bestseller list. Indeed, within two months of its being picked up and republished by Vintage Books, its sales exceeded ten million copies.

How did 50 Shades of Grey – a tale about a young woman submitting to the will and painful discipline of a wealthy Adonis – attract such a following? For whatever reason, the phenomena of sadomasochism, dominance and submission, and other forms of sexual kink were now seemingly becoming mainstream.

Actually, it should not have surprised anyone. A year before that, Rihanna’s song "S&M" peaked at number two on the Billboard hit charts. In 2002, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader starred in the kinky love story Secretary. Around the same time that movie was released, viewers of the hit show CSI were introduced to the dominatrix Lady Heather, who would appear in six episodes through the series, and develop a complicated relationship with its main character Gil Grissom.

But these are fictional performances, barely scratching the surface of reality. Given our mainstream media’s penchant for sensationalizing the unusual, those of us who are part of the BDSM community find ourselves living a paradox, where more people know about us and our sexuality, but myths and misconceptions still abound.

And, like it or not, this is a challenge for Unitarian Universalists, just as homosexuality was in the late 1960’s. Should UUs and other religious progressives merely accept mainstream presumptions, or question those presumptions and seek to learn more? Both our principles and our history call for us to engage in a deeper search for truth, and to overcome the prejudices of the past.

Let’s start by understand the umbrella term BDSM, itself a combination of three acronyms:
  • B/D for “bondage and discipline,” the use of physical or psychological restraint in an erotic context;
  • D/s for “Dominance and submission,” also known as consensual power exchange; and
  • S/M for “sadomasochism,” where pain or other intense stimuli are used to enhance sexual pleasure – pain, but not necessarily injury, and certainly not serious injury.

BDSM covers a wide spectrum of expression, practiced by a diverse community. Some may like what others find painful, others do not. Some identify as “dominant” or “submissive,” others are “switches” alternating between the two, and still others refuse to embrace any fixed role. And that’s just for starters!

This community has its own lingo, cultural symbols and ethical standards. The most common expression for this BDSM ethic is “safe, sane and consensual.” We develop skills and take precautions to minimize the risks of injury, much like rock climbers do; we also make sure everyone involved is in a proper frame of mind; and we take steps to communicate and understand what everyone involved will do together.

Another parallel between BDSM and sports like rock climbing is that people outside of these communities often wonder: “Why do they do it?” Well, the reasons are as diverse as the range of erotic expression – or other activity – that’s out there. The best summation I can give you is that we kinksters explore the delicate balance of risk, trust, intensity and intimacy – a balance within which many of us find a deeply spiritual aspect, what Justin Tanis refers to as “ecstatic communion”.

Still, even with these parallels to such activities, BDSM is nowhere near as tolerated. How many of you out there enjoy sushi, even just occasionally? [several hands go up] Wow, a full house! Now imagine that you travel to an area where eating raw fish is considered unhealthy, even dangerous, and people like you who enjoy this delicacy are looked upon as disturbed or sick. Just mentioning that you’ve tried sushi could cause you to lose friends or hurt your career; doctors can even refuse to treat you because they consider sushi eating a “high-risk activity.” Sushi restaurants would be banned, and few places would sell recipe books, raw ingredients like nori and wasabi, bamboo mats for rolling maki, and so forth. Making sushi for yourself at home might be tolerated, so long as you didn’t tell anyone about it, but having friends over for a sushi party runs the risk of being raided by the police for violating public health laws, in spite of any precautions you take to assure the health and safety of your guests.

Imagine you and your sushi-loving friends living with a sense of isolation and dread. Imagine trying to explain to others that this is safe, that what you choose to eat is your own business, that psychologists can show that you’re no more sick than non-sushi people, but to no avail. Imagine wondering who around you is like you, or at least willing to listen.

Friends, what I’ve just described is what many of us kinksters go through. We’re put in the bind of being told to “keep this private,” while living with the fear of what could happen if our privacy is violated. And so, I’ve decided to take a risk – to open myself up to you, and to field your questions. That is the next step on this journey of understanding and change.

[The sermon was followed by a "talk-back" session with a number of comments and questions, from what vanilla allies could do about discrimination, to questions about identity.]


  1. Good introduction.

    Interestingly, a Buddhist article concluded that BDSM is not inconsistent with Buddhist ethics.

  2. WOW! I mean like, WOW! A dear friend of mine sent me a link to your blog, because she knows how involved I am in my UU community and also my interests in BDSM. I've been wanting to tie my spiritual beliefs into my BDSM interests for some time. So I'm overjoyed to have found your blog! Thank you! Please continue blogging!!!!

  3. I have noticed that there is a process by which an activity or a group becomes socially acceptable.
    To paraphrase the way I have heard this process presented, First a group/activity is ignored, then vilified, then made the butt of jokes, then accepted. I think the stage after accepted is often "regulated".
    Regulation first comes from within the outsider group, as they try to become more acceptable, then it starts to get really crazy as the outsiders form committees with the representatives of the mainstream and they reach "compromises".
    I don't want anyone drawing lines or making compromises around my sex and love life or trying to regulate it in anyway.
    I observe some of this happening in the kink community in the ten or so years I have been on the fringe of it. In the process of trying to be accepted, people seem to be trying to get everyone to fit into their picture of what it means to be kinky. I keep hearing discussions of "protocol" like these are some rules everyone should be aware of and following.
    I suppose my point is that I don't know if the general acceptance of kinky lifestyles will make living a kinky lifestyle in 25 years more or less pleasant than it is today.
    I live in a state where Marijuana has recently become legal. The state isn't finished with the new regulations for that, but on the surface of it, it seems to me that removing one law about marijuana may have added twenty new ones to regulate it.
    What if we all just operated on the premise that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth and as such, each one has the right to live how they choose and to be treated and accepted by everyone else as a human being with inherent dignity and worth. What if none of us ever let any of "them" break us down into units that can be placed in boxes, which can then be accepted or rejected?
    What if all "movements" or protests were by people with signs that say "I'm a human being. I get to choose what to do with my life, and am still entitled to your respect and to be valued, and so are that couple over there, with the leather and the collar."
    I like your blog. I should read here more often.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments.

      I can only say that a movement and/or community depends upon what its members desire and work for. Certainly the kink community is in great flux; the Internet opened it up as never before, and the "50 Shades effect" has turned that into a flood.

      Will we ever be accepted? I would say only if people -- vanilla as well as kinky -- are willing to talk about it, and speak up to correct misconceptions and ignorance. I don't know if you've read my latest blog post but you may find it addresses some of the issues you've raised in your comment.