Kink at Pride, Part 2

In my last post, I offered my basic response to the arguments against having kinksters at Pride events. But this is a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface, one that touches on a lot of different issues, so I have more to say about it. A lot more.

Underlying the arguments against kink at Pride is the assumption that there is something inherently wrong about kinky sexuality, that it is so taboo or shocking that it needs to be kept completely to private spaces. The argument is that leather chaps, harnesses, rubber dresses, corsets, and pup hoods are so explicitly sexual and inherently kinky that having to look at them is inherently an issue of consent; those who haven’t consented shouldn’t have to see these items of clothing.

This argument is, to my mind, profoundly wrong-headed, for multiple reasons. I’ve already addressed the issue of consent in my previous post–if you’re at a Pride event, you’ve already consented to see such things. But there’s more that needs to be said about this.

This argument assumes that there is a clear, bright line between kinky clothing and non-kinky clothing. But kink doesn’t work like that. You can’t define objectively kinky clothing, because kink is highly subjective. What seems kinky to one person may seem totally unkinky and normal to another person. And nearly anything that might be an object of kinky desire is almost certainly kinky to someone out there. Objects and clothing get fetishized for deep, mostly inscrutable reasons (although objects with obvious power significance to them probably get fetishized more easily than, say, balloons. (And yes, there are balloon fetishists out there.)

More importantly, this idea that we can easily identify kinky gear carries with it a profoundly heteronormative bias to it. The strongest argument the anti-kinksters make is that children seeing kink gear will damage the children in some vague, unspecified way, by taking away their innocence or exposing them to sexuality before they are ready. But this overlooks the fact there are a massive number of items of clothing that are highly sexualized (or sexualizable) that we expose children to regularly: slinky dresses, high heeled shoes, tight pants, police uniforms, dresses with low necklines, push-up bras, business suits, compression gear, tight sweaters, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, boxer briefs, sports uniforms, bikinis, speedos, military uniforms, and a lot more that I could mention. All of these are things with strong and often explicit sexual overtones. But no one thinks that these items should be banned to protect children. Adults with fetishes for these items often acquire these fetishes in entirety non-sexual situations during childhood. (Most kinksters I know can trace at least one of their kinks back to something in childhood; I have lost count of the number of bondage boys who told me their fascination with getting tied up began either with innocent games of Cowboys and Indians or by seeing some tv action hero tied to a chair.)

So when the anti-kinksters say that leather or rubber gear is too sexual to be permitted at Pride, what they are really saying is that these fetish items aren’t heterosexual enough to be allowed at Pride. Sure, they might agree that they wouldn’t want a woman marching in a parade in lingerie, but they never stop to consider that allowing uniformed cops or firemen to march in a Pride parade is a display of sexuality, because to them that’s a heteronormative display of sexuality and so conventional that it doesn’t occur to them that “the children” might be affected by that spectacle. As someone who traces his cop fetish to a single encounter with a cop when he was about 6, trust me, cop uniforms are almost inherently sexual. They are certainly inherently about power dynamics. And anything that speaks to power has some degree of kink associated with it. So these anti-kink arguments rely on a homophobic view that some expressions of LGBT sexuality are unacceptably sexual when more heteronormative expressions of sexuality are acceptable.

But the problem with this argument goes deeper. As noted, the anti-kink argument is often couched in terms of protecting children. That positions kinky sexuality as dangerous, threatening to children, and perhaps triggering to adults. This represents a re-packaging of old claims that LGBT people are inherently predatory, especially toward children, that we seek to ‘recruit’ children to our ‘lifestyle’. This argument suggests that homosexual desire is not naturally occurring but has to be taught, and this leads easily to the idea that homosexuality could be stamped out like a virus if only LGBT people are contained and not permitted to spread their disease. We see elements of the same thinking in GOP legislation currently being directed against trans people, who are depicted as bathroom predators and maliciously seeking to recruit children and teenagers into changing their gender by exploiting momentary confusion. So while the intention of these anti-kink arguments may be very different from the explicitly anti-trans intentions of GOP legislation, both arguments ultimately lead to a similar view of LGBT sexuality as dangerous and toxic.

The ‘save the children’ argument also relies on an assumption that seeing kinky sexuality exhibited is bad for children and teens because it will alienate them from the LGBT community, that there are LGBT teens out there who want to join the community but who will be repulsed or frightened by the pups and the leather daddies and will therefore stay away. Thus kink is positioned as being an obstacle to LGBT youth entering the community and embracing their sexuality. Perhaps there are some teens for whom this is true; perhaps there are, for example, some gay teenagers out there who will see a rubber boy and think “if that’s what being gay is, that’s not who I am, so I must not be gay.”

But I think the likelihood is that the opposite is more common. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I saw no gay men that I wanted to be like, because the only gay men I saw in the media were campy or effeminate men like Liberace and Paul Lynde or really flamboyant ones like Elton John. I knew they were gay, but the gayness they modeled was not particularly attractive to me. I didn’t want to fuck them and certainly didn’t want to be them. But when I was in my junior year of college, I ran across a book of Tom of Finland’s artwork, and I was fascinated by it. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but it was offering me an image of hypermasculine gay men who were happy and proud of who they were and confident of their sexual desires. Had I had more exposure to leather men in the late 80s, my coming out process would probably have been much faster and easier than it was. So when I appear in public in my leather, I think it is far more likely that some proto-gay boy will look at me and realize that he is like me in some important way than that he will look at me and find me to be an obstacle to his acceptance of his desires and identity.

The whole spirit of Pride is one of glorious acceptance and celebration. By including the drag queens, gimps, furries, and leather dykes in our parades and festivals, we are saying that we accept ALL the LGBT people, no matter the range of their desires. So I think that some trans youth may well see the more extreme manifestations of LGBT sexuality and think, “If the community has a place for those people, it has a place for me too.”

A further problem with this is kink is in the eye of the beholder. What one person thinks is kinky another person may simply see as normal. If you think back to that list of clothing fetishes I mentioned, most straight people wouldn’t see business suits or tight sweaters as a manifestation of kink, even though I guarantee you that there are many people for whom those articles of clothing carrying intense fetish value. Although a majority of young adults today would not see oral sex as kinky, it was often seen that way a generation or two ago, and someone I was chatting with last week commented that in one of their social circles, it still is. Many conservatives reject the idea that homosexual and trans identity are innate and instead view them as kinks. So if we agree that there should be no kink at Pride, we’re opening the door to conservatives imposing definitions of kink that would completely exclude trans people or even just gay people from Pride.

Moreover, while fetish clothing has sexual meanings to it, it also has non-sexual meanings as well. For me, while leather has some intensely sexual elements to it, it’s also about ideas like honor, respect, leadership, strength, brotherhood, and pride, values that are extremely important to me, and to most serious leathermen. A collar and leash might be kinky, but it may also make its wearer think about belonging, safety, protection, or duty. A pup hood or an adult diaper can convey feelings of innocence, play, and affection. Although furries are often viewed as sexual freaks, many of them insist their fursona is not about sex at all. Kinksters cannot be responsible for how the viewer understands their gear or for that fact that the viewer may not see the non-sexual elements of their gear.

So the more you dig into the anti-kink argument, the more it falls apart, exposing both the unworkable assumptions of what is and isn’t kink and the fact that the arguments are to a considerable extent rooted in recycled notions that LGBT are inherently dangerous. There are even more problems with this argument, but I’m going to leave them for another post.

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