Friday, October 28, 2005

Leather and “Social Capital”

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #272, October 28, 2005)

Go to a munch—you’ll live longer.

The above oversimplification points to a truth that goes beyond the leather/BDSM community to society in general: in the words of Dr. Robert Putnam, “Our communities don’t work as well, and our bodies don’t work as well, when we’re not connected.”

Dr. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, spoke in Minneapolis last May at a Town Hall Forum presented by Westminster Presbyterian Church. He has spent years studying “social capital.”

Dr. Putnam defines social capital as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” (Note that word “trust”—an integral component of leather/BDSM relationships.)

Social coordination and cooperation are produced by face-to-face encounters leading to trust, shared values, a sense of belonging and a sense of commitment or connection to others. These qualities allow people to build communities and to weave a social fabric. Strong communities and high connectedness lead to better health, less crime, more economic prosperity and higher educational achievement.

According to Dr. Putnam, connection and commitment are social tools that allow us to get more done in less time, and a social network has benefits and value both for those within the network and for bystanders. Part of the benefit of social networks is reciprocity—as Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”

The picture Dr. Putnam paints of the current state of social capital in America is sobering. For the first two-thirds of the last century Americans were becoming more connected, creating new organizations, new networks, new social capital.

But from the 1960s through the 1980s connectedness leveled, declined—and then plunged. Putnam, citing data from the Roper polling organization, concluded that one-half of our civic infrastructure evaporated in the last quarter of the 20th century. He also cited a more specific piece of data leading to the same conclusion: DDB/Needham, an advertising agency in Chicago, documented a 45% decline in “frequency of entertaining”—we simply don’t invite people over as often as we used to.

In leather/BDSM circles, a frequent topic of conversation is “What’s happening to our community?” Why are traditional gay leather clubs graying, with few younger members in sight? Why is it harder to find contestants for leather contests? Why does it seem as if people don’t go out as often as they used to?

Every other community is asking these same types of questions. What’s happening to our schools? Are parents too busy to be involved in the PTA? Is there still a place for labor unions? Who will be the next generation of members for the American Legion and VFW? Why do fewer people seem to be involved in political parties?

What has caused this situation? Putnam cited multiple culprits, one of which is suburbanization—10 more minutes of commuting time equals a 10% reduction in socializing. The rise of two-career families didn’t help matters, either.

But high on Putnam’s list of culprits: television. In Putnam’s words, “Most Americans watch ‘Friends’ rather than having them.”

The internet, Putnam notes, is not a large factor in the decline of connectedness because the years of massive decline predate the internet in its current form. The internet will either evolve into a Super Television, which will be very isolating, or a Super Telephone, which will be very connecting.

Although some readers of this magazine might not agree, Putnam notes that “You don’t make new friends on the telephone”—it’s part of our network for maintaining connections we already have. Likewise, with the internet there is room for creativity. Society needs to figure out ways to use the internet to strengthen real community instead of fostering further disconnectedness.

“Creativity” is a ray of hope, not just for the internet, but for the entire problem of rebuilding social capital. At the turn of the last century, the situation was much the same as it is today. America was undergoing a transition from an agrarian society to an urban one; many of the old ways of relating and connecting didn’t fit anymore. The problem was fixed in a very short time, however, and new organizations were invented quickly to fit people’s new needs and situations.

That’s our challenge now, according to Dr. Putnam: “We need to invent new ways of connecting that fit the way we live—we need to reinvent the Kiwanis or the Y.”

Hmm. “Creativity”—now who are some of the most creative people you know?

That’s right: us. Who is better than the members of the leather/BDSM community at figuring out new and delightful ways to please each other? Who has more fun finding new uses for things from the hardware store? What other group takes such pleasure in pushing envelopes and blazing new trails?

Instead of worrying about where the leather/BDSM community is going, let’s use our creativity and imagination to strengthen what works and reinvent what doesn’t. In this era of social upheaval and rebuilding, the leather/BDSM community might one day find itself even more relevant, to more people, than ever.

For further reading: Dr. Robert Putnam is the author of a dozen books, including Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Better Together: Restoring the American Community. (Those with long memories will recall that the theme of IML 1994 Jeff Tucker’s title year was “Better Together.” They will also recall that IML 1996 Joe Gallagher’s theme was “Get Linked.”)

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