Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Reflections on Black History Month

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
    ~  Martin Luther King, Jr.
More Than Just the Leather Is Black
About an hour later, a young African American woman with a round face and closely cropped hair was led up to the stage by a tall, severe-looking white man who held the leash attached to her collar. She was the only person to appear on the stage with someone else, so the man explained that he needed to tell us, the audience, a few things about his slave. As she stood there, back straight, staring straight ahead, her master, addressing us in a tight, steely voice, said that she was fit. As he spoke, he yanked up her dress to display her shaved genitals, and he then turned her around. Still holding her dress above her waist, he smacked her ass so hard she pitched forward; the leash attached to the collar around her neck stopped her fall. Turning her back around, he said she was very submissive and guaranteed to make us happy. As he finished speaking, he stroked her head, petting and smoothing back her short blond hair. The audience was quiet throughout this display. When the bidding started, it was reserved; she did not sell for a lot of money. I was uncomfortable during this scene, and I felt sure that the rest of the crowd was, too. I strained to read the woman's expression, to see if she was all right at the front of the stage, but I couldn't tell.
      ~ Margot Weiss from Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
The quotation I just shared is from Margot Weiss, a professor at Wesleyan University who specializes in the ethnography of contemporary sexual cultures. In writing about a slave auction she witnessed as one of her earliest introductions to the BDSM community, Weiss describes, with very mixed emotions, the appearance of one individual black slave, after a plethora of white individuals had already been auctioned off to great zeal.

Because of the legacy left behind by slavery in the United States, and because battles for civil rights are still fresh in the memory of many individuals, issues based around race can have a very strong effect on people. There are layers of guilt, anger and even fear that, at times, lay beneath any discussion of the topic.

If a trained scientist who specializes in the study of cultural phenomena is overcome by difficult feelings when it comes to confronting the intersection of BDSM sexuality and our racial legacy, what are the rest of us to do or think?
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
    ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
    ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Race and Ethnicity in BDSM

I recently received a question from a good friend. And, despite being a middle aged white male with an initial instinct that this is a topic I shouldn't touch, I'm actually going to tackle the question.

The friend asked:
A quote about Black History Month just came over the radio, I'm curious-
Is sadomasochism a strictly caucasian practice?
It's my thinking that BDSM's appeal is not confined to just Caucasians (and Asians.) but instead, it's my belief that a variety of cultural, social, and economic pressures create a disproportionate disinterest in BDSM among most people of color.

At least that's my theory. The majority of this post is either background on the topic, or else my own theorizing on the reasons our BDSM community has disproportionate demographics.

If you are in the United States or Canada and didn't know that February was Black History Month, you must either live under a rock, or else your existence has an absolute and total dearth of multicultural influences.

I have an African-American friend who makes a special historical post on Facebook every day in February as her way of acknowledging and celebrating the Holiday.  I look forward to her posts each day as my own way to learn and celebrate with her.

I also watched the movie Freakonomics yesterday, and the film's discussion of the impact of giving a child an ethnic name is fresh in my memory. Altogether, it would seem that issues surrounding race and ethnicity have been on my mind recently, making my friend's question rather timely.

This is actually a great question. It's such a good question because BDSM videos and imagery on the Internet are very predominantly Caucasian in nature. Yes, there are people of color to be found among BDSM imagery online, but not very many, and certainly not in proportion to the population demographics of the United States.

For instance, if an individual started with the assumption that web images are representative in proportion to actual population demographics, and being given nothing to survey but BDSM pictures from Tumblr, they might likely conclude that African-Americans make up 5% of the population or less.

I'm also guessing that same individual cataloging Tumblr would also conclude that Black men are disproportionately endowed in the size of sexual organs. But, I think that's starting to wander into the area of cultural cliches, and that's probably another topic.

According to race and ethnicity data found on Wikipedia, people identifying themselves as White or Caucasian make up less than 64% of the United State's population. The total population is comprised of just over 16% Hispanic or Latino peoples, 12.2% Black or African American, and 4.7% Asian.

Spend just an hour or two looking at BDSM images on the web and you'll probably notice that they are nowhere close to be proportionate. It's not just Caucasians that are over represented, so are Asians.

People identifying as Black/African-American are certainly underrepresented in the BDSM community, especially among females. As I alluded to earlier, there is a strong presence of well endowed black males found in the pornographic industry, and there's some carry over into the fetish and BDSM worlds in general, but it's not enough to being their community up to 12% representation.

It seems to me that Hispanic/Latino individuals are even less proportionally represented within the BDSM community than are Black/African-Americans. Cultural stereotypes being what they are, I'm not sure there is any Latino equivalent to the "big black stud", so their people don't even get the numbers boost seen from African-American male's presence in the porn industry.

Why Isn't the BDSM Community Racially Proportionate?
I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
    ~  Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's certainly not my thinking that attraction to BDSM is somehow related to race, quite the opposite in fact. I actually believe that fetish and kink have a fairly universal appeal, given the right cultural and economic conditions. That's my own theory anyway.

I also freely admit that may very well be my own manner of prejudice, as I'm certainly predisposed to believe that the things that are sexy to me should also be attractive to everyone else. I

n other words, I am human, and prone to my own blind-spots and foibles.  My thinking here is, however, directly influenced by Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality by Margot Weiss.


I quoted Weiss earlier in this essay, about her experience as an ethnographer witnessing a BDSM slave auction.  In looking at the BDSM community Weiss first observes:
The BDSM community is not the sleazy, underground scene portrayed on crime shows and made-for-TV movies; neither is it simply the transgressive zone of sexual emancipation that I expected to find. Rather, it is a formally organized community with very particular social and educational practices.
She then adds the provocative thought that:
BDSM is a form of social belonging facilitated-even produced-by contemporary US capitalism, especially consumerism and commodity exchange.
I'd certainly never thought of it that way before, but my toy bag serves as one form of evidence that there's at least some truth in her observation.
The vast majority of practitioners are white with the means-or the aspiration-to buy the toys that, together with forms of self-improvement and technique, link community belonging with often-invisible race and class privilege. 
That's an observation of the BDSM scene in the San Francisco area, so quite obviously there may be some regional variation  But, while it may be true that your mileage may vary, I think it's also an essentially valid point on a close to universal level.
A BDSM practitioner requires not only BDSM interests or desires, but also a set of skills or techniques with which to navigate the BDSM world-a BDSM "worldview." In other words, becoming an SM practitioner, even if imagined to spring from a core or essential desire, requires self-mastery and self-knowledge that is bound to community rules, techniques, and perspectives. 
And finally . . .
Almost all of the practitioners I spoke with had invested between $1,500 and $3,000 in their toy collections, wardrobes, and, in some cases, play spaces. Commodities like bondage gear, sounds, and vibrators produce community; in this way, SM communities are not oppositional to, but rather complicit with, transformations in capitalism, particularly the consolidation of what is variously called late, flexible, informational, or advanced capitalism.
Weiss isn't describing a BDSM world that's accessible to individuals who are forced to inhabit the very lowest economic rungs.  Inequalities in the ability to simply earn a living are then compounded by educational inequality.  The harder an individual has to toil just to survive, the less luxury they have for anything, kinky sex included.

With all of that said, I've identified at least five different factors that are contributing to the disproportionate racial composition of the BDSM community.  They include:
  1. Career Inequalities - BDSM is a luxury leisure activity and therefore less accessible to lower income socioeconomic classes with less time for leisure. 
  2. Financial Inequalities - The BDSM community is a form of middle class consumerism, creating an artificial barrier to entry for lower income individuals.
  3. Educational Inequalities - At it's heart, BDSM is also an intellectual pursuit, some call it Graduate Level Sex - individuals raised in environments that discourage imagination and fail to promote learning are not conducive to building interest in BDSM activities.
  4. Slavery & Civil War - Cultural memory of slavery creates internal conflict within individuals regarding BDSM.  
  5. Sex & Culture - Cultural stigmas about sex impact an individual's choices regarding fetish, BDSM and other forms of alternative sexuality.
The first three arguments are predicated on the supposition that socioeconomic inequalities will directly impact an individual's interest in BDSM.  There's no escaping the Slavery issue, as it's even difficult territory for an ethnographer.  Issue five is more of my own personal observation of a wider cultural phenomena.

I'm reminded of the incident in the "Soprano's" television series where Uncle Junior encountered problems with his social status when it was discovered he performed cunnilingus on his girlfriend.  I also know, for instance, that Gay men struggle greatly with acceptance in Latino cultures because of their people's strong sense of what a man should be, what some call machismo.

So, to my mind, it's obvious that cultural heritage has some impact, even if it's not as strong as the four factors I listed first.  There's a reason it's last on my list.

In the end, I sincerely wish that my bothers and sisters with skin a different color than my own had the same level of opportunity I enjoyed growing up.  It's true that some did, but I also know from time spent in places like East St Louis, that many did not.  That is the socioeconomic reality we face today, that there are still terrible inequalities.

In a nation where it's obvious that visions of real racial equality from men of my Father's generation, wonderful men like Martin Luther King Jr., still remain a dream today, it really should come as no surprise that the BDSM world itself isn't also equal.

It turns out, nothing in this life ever is . . .
Some of us get the luxury of playing with inequality, with mocking it, for our own pleasure . . .  
Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.
   
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

5 comments:

  1. Powerful post and an interesting read. I really enjoyed it.

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    Replies
    1. thank you - those are among the most gratifying words an author can hear!

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  2. Michael Sir,

    It's interesting that mouse has known a few African-American Doms (both male and female), which seems to be more acceptable than in the submissive position.

    Yes, mouse can see where economics would play into it. Wonder tho, if DD or simply spanking is used more?

    Hugs,
    mouse

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    1. Oh, thank you my dear mouse, for the added perspective, it's appreciated~!

      Your comment is very thought provoking. I don't know the answer to the spanking and DD question, and I'd guess nobody really knows for sure. I'd be curious to know if you are correct, as this isn't the kind of information demographers often collect . . .

      I'd never thought about the dominant role being more acceptable for individuals of African-American descent, but it makes a lot of sense, as it's perfectly logical that there would be less stigma for most African-Americans in a role without the direct connection to the word slave.

      I'd originally envisioned an even longer essay, with more quotes and further thoughts on the topic, including a mini-essay on race stereotyping in the porn industry. Then I realized it wasn't going to be a timely BDSM reaction to Black History Month if the essay wasn't finished until May.

      big hugs,
      Michael

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