(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #154, April 20, 2001)
Words are powerful things. The words we use to refer to ourselves and our community send strong and sometimes unintentional messages about how we see ourselves. And in addition to sending those messages to everyone else, we’re reinforcing them in ourselves.
With that in mind, here’s a quick word-association test. You don’t need to grab a pencil and you needn’t write anything down. Just look at the list below and mentally note the first word, image or feeling that comes to mind:
This test is my own creation and is based on no scientific underpinning whatsoever. Your results may be different, but to me the first five words, which describe areas of community interest, are fundamentally different from the last four words, which entail value judgments.
Who is my audience for this column? Do we call ourselves the “leather community,” or “leather/SM” or “leather/BDSM”? These are simple statements of what we’re attracted to or what we like to do. Or do we refer to our community as the “kink” or “fetish” community and to ourselves, with a wink and a nod, as “kinksters” and “perverts”? These are “loaded” terms implying that there’s something wrong with what we’re attracted to, and therefore there’s something wrong with us.
Here’s how the Merriam-Webster Collegiate® Dictionary defines “kinky” (definition #2): “relating to, having, or appealing to unconventional tastes, especially in sex; also: sexually deviant.” Here’s the sole dictionary entry for “perversion”: “an aberrant sexual practice, especially when habitual and preferred to normal coitus.” Nowadays the only place you’re likely to see the word “coitus” is in a dictionary (unless it’s immediately followed by the word “interruptus”), so here’s the definition of “coitus”: “physical union of male and female genitalia accompanied by rhythmic movements usually leading to the ejaculation of semen from the penis into the female reproductive tract; also: INTERCOURSE” (definition #3) “— compare ORGASM.”
Dictionaries are such stimulating reading, don’t you think? Those definitions seem so matter-of-fact on the page. But in real life things can grow ugly; being labeled a “sexual deviant” often brings intense disapproval from society, and some people believe “perverts” deserve to be hated, demonized, harassed, bashed and killed.
I realize that bringing up this line of discussion risks wading into the same territory that the final word in my little quiz, “queer,” brings up. (Ethnic minorities can also have these kinds of discussions around various racial slurs that have been used against them over the years.) For years words like “queer” and “faggot” were slams and insults; they were yelled in anger and their intention was to hurt us. But when we consciously use these words to describe ourselves (seen on a t-shirt: “That’s MISTER Faggot to you”), the words supposedly lose their power to hurt—“Yeah, you’re right, I’m queer, so what?” The fact that I personally still don’t feel comfortable describing myself as “queer” (I prefer to call myself a gay man) tells you that I don’t entirely buy that argument. (Since this seems to some extent to be a generational thing, it also tells you I’m over 40.)
In much the same way, even if I use the terms “kinky” or “pervert” ironically or sarcastically—or even if I only use them when I’m with other like-minded community members—I’m still using someone else’s value judgments, instead of my own, to define myself. If I don’t agree with the value judgments, why should I first call attention to them before saying I don’t agree with them? Why should I even let them occupy valuable real estate in my mind?
Words like “queer” or “kinky” or “perverted” simply don’t resonate with me. Being sexually attracted to another man comes as naturally to me as breathing—there’s nothing “queer” to me about it. I like the look of black leather or a nice, masculine uniform on a man; to me that’s natural and normal, not a “fetish.” To me it’s not kinky, it’s just the way it is. For me to engage in what Merriam-Webster defines as “normal coitus”—now that would be strange.
I’ve heard things like this from other people, too: “Oh, you write that leather column? Well, I’m not into leather” (or “I’m not kinky”), “BUT . . . .” And then they reveal they like getting their nipples played with, or their ass paddled, or that handcuffs excite them. But to them it’s not kinky, it’s just the way it is.
One important feature of the leather/BDSM community’s code of ethics is being non-judgmental of other people’s interests and attractions. Stop and think about the hanky code, and what a wonderful social institution it is: different colored hankies stand for different sexual appetites, and no judgment of the rightness or wrongness of those activities is necessary. You can flag whatever color you want, and even if that’s not the color I’m looking for, I will still defend your right to flag it. The community takes non-judgmentalism so seriously that it has evolved an acronym for the act of being judgmental: YKINOK, which stands for “Your Kink Is Not OK.” This is not something one wants to be found guilty of in leather/BDSM circles; instead of making the value judgment of “Your Kink Is Not OK,” it is more proper to express “Your Kink Is Not My Kink”—we don’t all have to agree, and to each his (or her) own.
Gee, I wish the rest of the world were more like that.
By the way, in the above example you may have noticed I’m still using the word “kink.” Henceforth, when I talk about “kink” I will not focus on Merriam-Webster’s definition #2 (quoted above), but will instead focus on definition #3: “a clever, unusual way of doing something.”
Register Now for Knights of Leather Tournament
Local pansexual leather/BDSM club The Knights of Leather will be hosting their annual Tournament run (this year’s is the thirteenth edition) the weekend of May 18-20. Held at a wooded campground north of the Twin Cities, this run promises two fully-equipped dungeons, a lake/beach for swimming, great food, and several workshops including a repeat presentation of last year’s popular “Leathercrafts (Make Your Own Leathertoys).”
For more information visit www.knightsofleather.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also pick up an application at local leather-related businesses, at the TIES Munch on Wednesday, April 25, or from any Knights of Leather member. Save $15 by registering before May 5.