Friday, March 28, 2008

Sex and Politics

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #335, March 28, 2008)

This issue’s column was inspired by, and is dedicated to, Eliot Spitzer.

What, you may ask, is the former governor of New York doing in a leather column? He’s serving as a good example of a bad example. The leather/BDSM/fetish community can learn much from his recent misadventures. We ignore these lessons at our own peril.

It was dizzying to watch how quickly Spitzer went from being spoken of as a possible presidential contender in a few years to being spoken of as Client 9. Eliot Spitzer now joins Larry Craig, David Vitter, Rudy Giuliani, James McGreevy, Mark Foley, Bill Clinton, Gary Condit, Gary Hart, and many other powerful male politicians (yes, so far they’ve all been male) who have been the subject of sex scandals.

Our society is obsessed with the combination of sex and politics, and also with the combination of sex and religion (as in Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker). When something goes wrong with either combination it can create scandal—and we as a society are so absolutely, totally disgusted by sex scandals that we absolutely, totally can’t get enough of them. Since scandal sells newspapers and grabs television-viewing eyeballs, the media are only too happy to cater to our loathing.

What is there about sex and politics, or sex and religion, that’s such a hook for so many people? Whether politics or religion, the people at the center of sex scandals are always powerful people. Wait a minute—sex and power . . . playing with sex and power . . . does that sound like anyone we might know? Like, maybe, us? The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) conducts a “Sex and Politics” workshop and has even gone so far as to produce a very attractive t-shirt emblazoned with “Sex and Politics” (along with the NCSF logo).

NCSF, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation and other leather/BDSM/fetish community organizations and think tanks spend a lot of time contemplating sex and politics, and how to change things for our community’s betterment. Along these lines one long-term goal that has been identified, and is now starting to be acted upon, is the decriminalization of BDSM activity. But as we craft our strategies to achieve this and other community goals, it might be instructive for us to look especially closely at the somewhat frenzied nature of the current socio-political climate—the ocean in which we, along with the rest of society, are all swimming.

For example, instead of merely garden-variety internet prostitution, what if the governor had been caught being involved with, say, a professional dominatrix? Or even a pro-dom—another male? Would he still be governor? Would the shame have been less? Or would it have been even worse?

All we as a community can do with the above questions is to speculate, of course, because we all know how unlikely it is that any of our elected representatives in Washington or elsewhere would do anything so depraved as to utilize the services of a pro-domme. Certainly none of our elected representatives or officials are involved in BDSM, are they?

All kidding aside, I expect one day we’ll find out how the above hypothetical situation plays out for real, when a congressman or senator is caught in flagrante dungeon. We have already seen what happened when The Washington Post outed one of the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq as being a member of the BDSM community. If there can be that much of a media firestorm for someone who wasn’t an elected official . . . .

On the other hand, what if someone who was a proud member of the leather/BDSM/fetish community were to run for public office and win—and then be popular enough to be re-elected? That has happened for several openly gay politicians, including Representatives Barney Frank, Gerry Studds and Tammy Baldwin. Frank and Studds even both survived their own political scandals. (The man who led the charge in 1990 to expel Frank from Congress was, incredibly enough, Larry Craig.)

Maybe it all comes down to shame and secrecy. Right now in the public mind leather/BDSM/fetish sexuality is in the same category as prostitution and other scandalous things—in much the same way Trent Lott once put gay people in the same category as kleptomaniacs. That was in 1998, and Lott discovered a large segment of the population did not agree with his comparison, because by that time many people had decided that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender was nothing to be ashamed of.

In much the same way, I think the day is coming when leather/BDSM/fetish sexuality will be nothing to be ashamed of. If part of what gets us there is working to decriminalize BDSM, we have our work cut out for us—but we need to do it. Both our community and society at large will be better for it, because so many members of our community have so much to offer the wider society. If politicians professing to be God-fearing Christians have made such a mess of things over the last few decades, it might take a bunch of people formerly known as “pervs” to make things better.

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