Thursday, April 11, 2013

Power, Education and Society

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #466, April 11, 2013)

If you haven’t seen your humble columnist out and about lately, it’s because I have gone back to college. I now am enrolled as a degree-seeking student in the College of Individualized Studies at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. My objective is to complete the BA degree I abandoned long ago, back when dinosaurs still walked the earth.

However, even after I abandoned structured higher education, I still continued to learn through experience—and much of that learning has come from my involvement in the leather/BDSM/fetish community. Now that I have returned to higher education, I am discovering the value and importance of our community’s knowledge and cultural values.

One unexpected feature of my college experience so far is that one word seems to suffuse all my classes, and indeed the general learning culture of Metro State. That word is “power.” In many of my classes we discuss how power operates in our society and in other societies. We discuss who has power and who doesn’t. We discuss how power is acquired and lost. We discuss how power is used, misused and abused. We discuss—all together now—dominance and submission.

To me, these discussions about power sound familiar. I already have learned much about the dynamics of power because I am part of a community built around the dynamics of power.

Members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community learn about power. Then they go further—they use the knowledge they have acquired to play with power. Whether we’re talking about a scene in a bedroom or a dungeon, or a dominant/submissive, sir/boy or master/slave relationship, it’s all about who has power, who doesn’t, and how power is used, exchanged and played with.

My studies at Metro State have made me realize there is something paradoxical about the leather/BDSM/fetish community. Within it everyone—dominant, submissive or switch, top or bottom, master, madame, mistress or slave—is accorded an equal measure of personal power if they choose to exercise it. The community’s culture declares that no member of the community has lesser status because of their chosen role. In the rare instance that a community member thinks his or her lofty role as a master or mistress makes it okay to mistreat or abuse submissives, other community members will intervene to tell them that such behavior is not acceptable.

Yet, to the rest of society, members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community historically have been given less respect and social status than other supposedly “normal” people. Society has given us the label of “perverts” and then told us we should be ashamed of that label. Ironically, society has tried to strip us of our power, the thing around which our community revolves. Once power is taken away it is rarely given back—it must be actively reclaimed.

One way we reclaim that power, individually and as a community, is by educating ourselves and others. Education is important because it is empowering both on a personal level, such as enabling someone to get a better job, and on a public level, such as enabling oppressed communities to cast off labels like “queer” or “pervert.”

The empowering nature of education is why the GLBT community has Creating Change, an annual leadership and activism conference, and why the leather/BDSM/fetish community has the Leather Leadership Conference—and this year, the Kink Lincs Leadership and Community-Building Symposium (April 12-14 in Seattle). These conferences are examples of learning by and for the community.

Another way to reclaim power is by educating the members of the society that is trying to take away that power. Such educational efforts were essential in defeating the Minnesota marriage and voter I.D. amendments last year. The BDSM community’s “Consent Counts” project is an important educational initiative aimed at removing shame and stigma connected with BDSM sexuality.

The more I have studied the dynamics of power, education and social change at Metro State, the more I have become convinced of the correctness of something I wrote in this column in 2008: “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.”