There’s nothing ‘radical’ about abolitionist approaches to sex education

A less-colourful version of this piece can be found in Archer Magazine.  It’s in part a response to this Archer piece, and in part a response to the cancellation of my BDSM101 workshop at Monash University Rad Sex & Consent week in April 2015, which I also wrote about here.

I was to be the facilitator of the BDSM101 workshop which was cancelled at Monash RSC Week. I’ve run BDSM101 at Melbourne Uni RSC for the last two years, and it’s gone off with no conflict with students who’ve had a variety of perspectives on and experiences with BDSM and kink philosophy and practice.  Admittedly, I was quite shocked to hear about how this played out at Monash, and the flimsy and presumptuous rhetoric upon which the objections were based.

I also feel regret for those students whose education and perhaps identities as kinky, queer, or simply curious people were effectively shut down by the course of events that played out here.  This is the sort of situation in which someone will always end up being silenced.  In my personal experience with radical feminism, it’s usually everyone else’s voices but theirs that get silenced and / or denied, and this is a pretty classic example of that – I suppose I just expected an environment like RSC not to attract such behaviour.

I understand and have respect for the position the Women’s Department rep and RSC organiser was placed in by her peers, and whilst I don’t believe that the decision she made was optimal for offering ‘the sex ed you didn’t get in high school’, I do think that it took to heart people’s personal experiences of BDSM-related abuse and / or trauma, which is also an important aspect of creating a safer space.  She takes her role seriously and was put under a lot of pressure at the last minute (the workshop was cancelled late in the week before it was intended to run), and I don’t condemn the decision she made.

It is my understanding that the students in opposition to BDSM intended to picket the workshop, which would have created an environment in which students who were curious about or interested in kink would be outed and publicly shamed for crossing the picket line.  While I find the idea of picketing something like this to be politically ineffective, and feel that the workshop was actually a very appropriate space to discuss the very concerns raised by some of the students, I also care about constructing a safe container for education to happen, and that would have been compromised had the workshop been picketed.

Radical feminism is a social determinist philosophy.  There is simply no space in the scope of its teachings for individual agency of any kind, which makes it a really unsatisfying feminism for a really large percentage of the population, including queers, people of color, gender diverse people, kinky people, and so on.  It deals in binaries.  For those of us who fall on so many other parts of social and cultural spectra, it is a feminism of erasure and denial.  Whilst I certainly encourage debate around its tenets, I must also acknowledge that there is a point at which that debate will necessarily circle back onto itself.  I have engaged in enough of these in my experience as a queer, sexworking, kinky, sex-positive feminist to know that they will always end in the same empirical fallout of agency-denial.  So instead of engaging any further with that condition of the discussion, I’m simply going to offer a few key points about BDSM that I intended to include in the workshop, and can answer to some of the concerns raised.

Education in and communication about sexuality in general, and BDSM in particular is absolutely essential, especially in light of its current popular-cultural mainstreaming, which gives more people access to superficial representations.  The greatest ‘unsafety’ that’s present here is the fact that people have had their access to that education cut off.  This can result in things like unsafe play, poor communication and boundaries, unchecked presumptions about what actually happens in a BDSM exchange, and the like.  I would suggest that the key to healthy sexuality, kinky or otherwise, is about access to education, self-awareness, a complex understanding of consent, healthy relationships, the construction of one’s boundaries, and one’s relationship to pleasure.  The work we do in BDSM101 discusses all of this at an introductory level, and provides resources for further research.

Abuses of BDSM negotiations and dynamics occur when people either choose not to receive and integrate education about these topics, or when they don’t have access to it at all.  And even then, sometimes it still happens, just like it happens in all sorts of other relationships.  However: if the only understanding of BDSM you ever got was from reading ‘Dworkin-critiques-de Sade’, or from or 50 Shades of Grey, it’s my opinion that you should neither be practicing nor condemning it.  This is why I do the work that I do – because none of those perspectives are enough, and all of them oversimplify.

I am not particularly interested in ‘promoting’ BDSM.  I don’t really need to – its got plenty of promo dollars behind it already, ones that reach much further than I do.  Which aspects of sexuality people choose to engage with is absolutely their choice, and I concern myself with helping people to make those choices consciously.  What I’m interested in is providing some information about what BDSM is – and is not – so that people can make their own decisions about it.  I’m sure that those who have opposed its discussion at Monash RSC feel the same way, which is unfortunate and perhaps a little premature (much of the opposition seems to be academic, which is only one of many ways to engage with the topic).

The rhetoric used to campaign against the workshop illustrated, for me, the precise reasons this workshop was needed in the first place.   Simply: abolitionist perspectives on sex education put people in danger.  I can liken what’s happened at Monash to the idea that we shouldn’t teach children about things like condom use, because it encourages them to have sex.  The fact is that they’re having it anyway, and that there are students in reach of the MSA who are practicing kink anyway.  To deny them education on how to do that in a risk-aware, consensual way is to fall into a position of negligence.

For those in the Monash student body who would have attended the workshop, I’d like to say the following:

BDSM does not equal abuse.  It’s ok to be curious about your own sexuality and to venture into some of its more nuanced spaces.  It’s GREAT to question the philosophy and the practice.  It’s also ok to question ‘the scene’ (whether that’s on-campus feminism, BDSM, tantra, sex-positivity, etc).  All of this helps you to figure out exactly what it is that YOU want from your sexuality, your embodiment, and your health and wellbeing.  Ask questions.  Be intrepid.  Get some education and then play, experiment, try things on.  Not everything will fit.  What doesn’t fit, you can leave behind.  What does fit, you can wear fabulously.  And no one has the right to deny your experience – it is yours, you own it, and you can find spaces in which you can be proud of it.  And learn to care for yourself in the process.

When I was an undergraduate with ill-informed anarcho-feminist politics, it was simply impossible for me to make space for something like BDSM, because anything existing within a power structure was something I wanted to dismantle.  You can see how this would quickly become unsustainable, because that means opposing everything – a joyless and exhausting task.  But I did what any decent liberal-arts education should encourage you to do: I stayed open to other arguments and possibilities, and it didn’t take long for me to make some rhetorical and personal evolutions toward embracing things like nuance, queerness, non-binary-ness, subjectivity, and the like.

So my suggestion is that the effects of this degree of backlash will pass.  Sure, there will always be someone who wants to deny your experience – it’s an easy rhetorical roadblock and ‘radical’ politics love a blockade.  But the more experienced you become and the more you integrate into reality outside of campus dramas like this one, the more possibility there is for your experience to be owned, cherished and celebrated, if you so choose.

If you’re looking for some basic discussions of BDSM outside of a radfem viewpoint, or looking for some practical skills, I am more than happy to be a resource to you where possible.  I can point you towards some great workshops, books, podcasts, and other educational and social resources, and you can make your own decisions and ask your own questions.  The resource guide I created for the workshop is here.  And it’s very easy to get in touch with me should you be seeking any further resources.

I regret that the workshop wasn’t able to occur in this venue, and deeply question the political discourse which has made it so, but hope you’ll all look out for other opportunities provided on and off campus for education and discussion.

All the best,