I&I

Patrick Mulcahey and two types of bdsm knowledge

Today I’m taking a break from comics to recommend reading this insightful Leather Reign speech delivered by Patrick Mulcahey. I thought I might use it to illustrate how the logic of privilege can become an invasive force in a marginalized community and how every subcultural group must negotiate a delicate dance as the boundaries between their own marginalization and the resources, protections and validations of the mainstream begins to dissolve.

PatrickMulcahey

Patrick Mulcahey has been playing with rope, men, pain, trust and power for 35 years. He currently serves as program director of the SF Leathermen’s Discussion Group. He is a proud member of the 15 Association, MAsT and Janus.

In summary, Mulcahey describes how he began playing before the rapid rise of the pedagogical movement in the bdsm community in N. America and is questioning its authority and its usefulness. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but Mulcahey is marking a distinction between two different types of knowledge: institutional, standardized knowledge and community, experience based knowledge. While I realize knowledge may fall along a spectrum between these poles, and that there is no “purity” to be found in either, for the sake of brevity, I am going to treat these two categories as mutually exclusive.

Mulcahey: “I thought ‘classes’ were something straight people did. They didn’t have leather bars, they didn’t have leather clubs, maybe they didn’t have friends who could come over and say, ‘Pinch the skin, point the needle away, and keep steady because he may jump.’” The structure and logic of the classroom setting in many bdsm courses are based on mainstream educational institutions and thereby, how state power disseminates knowledge. This is likely why he associates bdsm classes with straight, mainstream individuals who do not enter the space of a marginalized community.

[Leather] wasn’t an experience of ‘education.’ It was the experience of a trusted relationship guiding you toward your health, your independence, your goals and desires.” When submitting to mainstream logic, the nature of community knowledge morphs into something standardized and codified as opposed to what Mulcahey had: shared life experiences. Mulcahey calls for the return of knowledge that is informal, organic and peer based. Non-standardized education is responsive to individuals, is based on human relationships, and often develops its own geographic/cultural idiosyncracies. This is what fosters diversity, creativity and risk taking. This is why things that revitalize and resurrect the mainstream tend to grow out of the margins and not the mainstream itself.

The vogue of ‘kink classes,’ the very fact of them, was turning me from a happy, confident leatherman into a guy who felt inadequate to detain a willing bottom without nerve damage.” Another negative effect of the pedagogical trend is the devaluing of that diverse, creative, risky marginalized space in ways that reach beyond systemic oppression. Here we see, in a hegemonic and truly perverse way, how the privilege of mainstream logic can come to undermine and undercut an experienced leader – and a Dominant no less – of a marginalized community. By adopting the logic of the classroom, knowledge becomes something certain people are authorized to have and dispense while the others must passively receive.

Indeed, Mulcahey describes the call for teacher certification as a “catastrophically wrong direction” and makes this leatherman “want to cry.” It’s worth crying over. Because by the time you’ve hit the possibility of certification, it is an indication that the culture of a marginalized community has reached a point in which mainstream power dynamics, in which a binary model of safe/certified vs sketchy/uncertified, in which power and responsibility is concentrated and formalized, makes sense. And that’s not all. First comes standardization which is problematic enough in itself, but then comes the related profits, the corruption that brings, and worst of all: auditing. Certification invites greater surveillance. And I can’t imagine any community that should shun a kind of depersonalized, top down surveillance of any kind more than the kink community, which seems to me, aside from mainstream puritanical interest, is still highly reviled. Surveillance creates more points of access for medical, psychiatric, legal and criminal institutions within the context of certification. And for what? So that everyone can play more safely?

Ah, safety. Mulcahey lambasts this value of safety first: “Well, in the immortal words of Miss Jean Brodie, ‘Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first.’ If goodness, truth and beauty do not animate our play, our relationships, our teaching and our learning too, then I have no fucking idea what we are about.” When you exist in the margins, your life is at greater risk. You cannot rely on institutional protections like those with privilege do, and as such, you must take your own life into your own hands and place it only into the hands of those you know and trust, not some anonymous power you pay taxes to.

Living in the margins requires a lot more work. It is a life full of friction, frustration and failure. It can be made safer, but it is not safe, and to pretend that you can take the risk out of the equation is disingenuous. If you are pushing physical and psychological boundaries, caveat emptor. I do not deny that there are places where it would be advantageous for a marginalized community to incorporate mainstream logic on its own terms. But to invoke the logic of institutional power to gain its privileges, resources and safety is to risk gambling away something far more precious than those things: the heart, the lifeblood and the liberty of a people.

If the above keynote speech interested you, you may wish to read a related keynote by Guy Baldwin.

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