Friday, October 10, 2008

Meet CARAS: Better Leather Living Through Research

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #349, October 10, 2008)

And now for something really sexy . . .

Research—or, to be more specific, research concerning leather/BDSM/fetish and other alternative sexualities.

Okay, maybe research isn’t terribly “sexy.” But it’s important. And our community has the good fortune of having an organization that understands how important good, credible research can be. That organization is CARAS (Community Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities).

CARAS is a national-scale organization that started with an idea proposed by Dr. Richard Sprott at the ninth annual Leather Leadership Conference in 2005. The organization’s mission is to support and promote excellence in the study of alternative sexualities and to make research findings and information available both to other scholars and to alternative sexuality communities (including leather, BDSM, fetish, kink and polyamory). It does this by creating partnerships between community groups and academic researchers.

Good research is crucial for advancing the interests of sexual minority communities. The GLBT community benefited enormously from research done by Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and 1950s, which among other things showed a much greater prevalence of non-heterosexuality than had been previously thought to exist.

Also in the 1950s, Dr. Evelyn Hooker actually tested the then-prevalent idea that homosexuals were mentally ill. Her findings: self-identified homosexuals were no worse in social adjustment than the general population.

Research that challenged medical and legal discrimination against homosexuals, like Kinsey’s and Hooker’s, has been a big factor in improving life for members of the GLBT community. CARAS’ goal is to foster the same kind of research to benefit other alternative-sexuality communities.

Not much empirical information about alternative sexualities is currently available. Questions about what alternative sexualities are, how they affect people’s lives and how members of alternative-sexuality communities interact with the rest of society have not really been studied in a systematic, scientific way. Good research can replace ignorance and silence with well-grounded, accurate facts and insight.

Because solid research hasn’t been done, the many examples of inaccurate research that draw flawed conclusions about alternative sexualities are hard to challenge. Some of this flawed research is done by researchers with no connection to the communities they are studying, which often leads to clueless results. Worse, some researchers are influenced by preconceptions, myths and stereotypes, and the resulting studies are not objective, but instead are actively biased against the communities being studied. CARAS strives to encourage and disseminate research that is helpful instead of pointless or damaging.

In its role as a liaison, CARAS must satisfy the needs of scholarly and academic researchers. Simply stated, those needs are: get funded, get data and get published. If the research helps advance a researcher’s career or helps expand a field or domain of knowledge, so much the better.

But CARAS also must satisfy the needs of alternative-sexuality communities, such as the need that the research be relevant and helpful to the community. It also is important that the results be presented in understandable English instead of academic jargon.

To harmonize these needs, CARAS uses a research model known as “community-based research.” This is not a new invention—it’s an established concept that has been used, for example, in HIV/AIDS and other public health research.

Community-based research differs from traditional research by focusing on communities, not isolated individuals. Also, in traditional research models, researchers have all the power and authority, and the ability to dictate what’s important and what’s not. In community-based research, however, power is shared between the community being studied and the researchers doing the studying. A community can decide that research being proposed would not be helpful, and can choose not to support the research or to suggest changes to the proposal. Ideally, the community has input at every stage of a research project—what ideas will be researched, how the research will be done, and the manner in which the results will be made available.

CARAS already has some significant accomplishments to its credit. It created a well-received training DVD for counselors and therapists on working with clients who are kinky (contact them at the address below for a copy of the DVD). It recently reviewed a proposal from a student wanting to research the impact of stigma against leather/BDSM/kink on people’s access to health care. And it has done presentations and outreach at annual meetings and conferences of the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and several other professional groups. CARAS currently is the only organization consistently doing this type of outreach in vanilla settings.

Community support is essential to CARAS’ mission and success. Individuals can subscribe to the organization’s newsletter and web forums. Community organizations can get involved by becoming sponsors of CARAS. Academics wanting to do research on alternative-sexuality communities can be referred to CARAS to have their research proposals reviewed. (CARAS can be contacted at <>.)

One final thought: Research has a long timeline—doing it takes a long time, but the results are influential for a long time, too. Right now the leather/BDSM/fetish community is about where the gay community was in the 1960s, and seems to be moving on the same path. CARAS exists to facilitate and focus the efforts of a modern-day Kinsey or Hooker whose research will lead to greater acceptance of alternative sexualities.

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