The latest advertising campaign for Dove Promises bite-sized chocolates poses the question "What's your perfect relationship?" and features a list of more than a hundred wordslike low-key, playful, inventive, and profound. In each ad, one or two words appear in bold and are marked with a brown square graphic. On the bottom of the page, the motto: "For every relationship, there's Dove." One ad, in Condé Nast Traveler, highlights dominant and submissive. When advertisers take note of a growing sexual minority, and want to market sweets to us, I don't consider it trivial. Not only does it represent the mainstreaming of s/m, but it presents dominance and submission not as the stereotypical whip-toting dominatrix, but as just another kind of relationship. It's a consumer confection, I know, but it's also a little taste of progress.
Sometimes with progress comes hostility, as evidenced by two recent events. Black Rose, a Washington, D.C.-based s/m organization, planned to hold its annual national conference (which attracts thousands) at the Princess Royale hotel in Ocean City, Maryland (in previous years, it has been held elsewhere in the state). The contract had been signed; all the rooms in the hotel were booked. A few weeks ago, when details were leaked to the local media, there was a flood of public opposition as residents claimed the event would tarnish Ocean City's family-oriented image.
Opponents worked every angle to try to run Black Rose out of town. Finally the liquor commission informed the hotel, city officials, and the papers that local laws could be violated during the event, especially those that prohibit erotic touching over clothes in a place with a liquor license, even when no booze is sold or consumed. Faced with pressure from police and local religious organizers ready to picket, Black Rose canceled.
Less than a week later, police chief Nick Congemi of Kenner, Louisiana, wrote a letter to 15 area motels urging them to decline requests to host Fetish in the Fall, a new s/m event scheduled to run in conjunction with N'awlins in November (neworleansinnovember.com), an annual swingers conference. Although he refused to meet with organizers, Congemi called the event "borderline illegal and demeaning to women." The organizers hadn't yet secured a signed contract with their host hotel, and decided to cancel in order to focus on the larger swingers event (first letting the media know their side of the story).
Congemi's personal opinion, which he chose to turn into policy, reflects a fundamental yet typical misunderstanding of s/m. "It is virtually impossible to bind, denigrate, beat and inflict pain on humans in sexual acts, yet honor and respect them in everyday situations," wrote one woman in an editorial about Black Rose in Delaware County's Daily Times; she also likened s/m practitioners to the serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy. AP reported that Black Rose offered classes on "everything from torture to the various techniques associated with pain-induced sex." What the hell is pain-induced sex? Sadomasochism is a consensual practice that may incorporate power play, bondage, and heavy sensation play but is not equivalent to violence and abuse; while it is often sensual, it may or may not include genital-focused sex. Because there may be pain, punishment, or submission involved, people automatically assume that no one would willingly be subjected to such things. These same ignorant people cannot imagine erotic exchanges outside their comfy norm.
Susan Wright of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (ncsfreedom.org) estimates that there are close to 250 events like these held each year. I've been to my fair share, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Portland, Oregon, as both instructor and attendee. As the community grows, more of these events take over an entire hotel. When we share space with non-kinky folks, however, we respect them. Whether the hotel has been sold out or not, these are private, members-only functions that follow local laws and have tight security. Participants cannot gain admission to any of the venues without official event badges, and everyone has to present identification and sign waiver forms when they register. It's not a matter of "regular" people being "subjected" to seeing things they don't want to.
If you've ever been to a conference for a community, professional, or spiritual organization, then you already know what goes on at a leather event. People attend seminars (yes, even perverts use PowerPoint), shop in vending areas, swap business cards, and party at night. There's more leather per capita than at an annual cosmetologists' convention, and dungeon parties replace drinking at the hotel lounge, but otherwise they are very similar: A group of like-minded people come together for education, networking, cruising, and fun. If any of our opposers came to a meeting (and there are rumors that members of the right-wing group Concerned Women for America have infiltrated some), they'd see faces that resemble their neighbors, their co-workers, their family and friendsbecause that is who we are. And as for family values, which is a concept commonly invoked by fundamentalists, the leatherpeople I know have plenty to go around: They're non-judgmental, inclusive, thoughtful, and ethical, dedicated to mentoring, activism, and building strong personal relationships.
We are consenting adults who have the right to gather and express ourselves. Because our numbers are large, we need and have the first amendment right to meet in public spaces that can accommodate us. We are not interested in recruiting children or brainwashing bystanders. Our events are not just social and frivolous, but critically important to our community. We teach and we learn, we reach out and we support one another around a common desire to explore different kinds of sexual and emotional relationships. We pay our bills, we don't trash venues, and we don't break the law. We are not hurting anyone (except those we love, with their full consent).
Wright puts a positive spin on the latest attacks against s/m: "The backlash speaks to the progress of the movement. The fact is, our community is larger and more 'out' than ever. There is an event like Black Rose or Fetish in the Fall nearly every weekend. Like the gay and lesbian community and other minorities, the more visible we get, the more of a target we become." A bull's-eye may be forming around the eighth annual meeting of the Leather Leadership Conference (LLC) (leatherleadership.org), scheduled to take place in Kenner, Louisiana, in April. I suspect that LLC members won't back down if Chief Congemi tries to shut it down. I'm crossing my fingers that kinky folks and our allies from all over will show up in big numbers to prove we are everywhere and here to stay.
Please visit my website at www.puckerup.com.
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