I am into bondage. I have had BDSM-driven relationships, both long-term love and simple playmates, and I love it. I did my fair share of reading on the subject. Of course, there’s a lot of discussions about race in this. BDSM between people of the same ethnicity is one thing; BDSM between whites and people of color – in my case, between a white man, black woman – yeah, that comes with some stuff.
One night, I was out at a play space – my favorite play place space. I was chained up and naked, aside from a collar around my neck and cuffs on my ankles and wrists. And my white Dom was putting clamps on my nipples and spanking me.
These activities were not unusual in the play space. Anything that was happening was in full view of anyone who wanted to look on. There were other scenes happening in other parts of the same open space. But a white woman approached my white partner to talk to him about the race dynamics of our play. Because, in her mind at least, that needed to play a more explicit – dominant, so to speak – role in what was happening between us.
There’s no denying that it was there. You could not see the two of us and overlook that. Nor would you deny it, when the space is about Domination/submission and the very language of Master/slave is common. It was even in our own space, what we would tease in the words exchanged between us in the privacy and safety of home.
But when she challenged him, he asked whether she would have stepped to him if I had been white.
He’s white. I’m Black. Our ethnicities are always there. And the history of real enslavement is not to be ignored nor downplayed, as if it has no part at all in the context of play. The questions of whether BDSM can be feminist or anti-racist are then about the nature of consent. Fantasy does not free us of these greater contexts, but it also does not enslave us to them. I use that term explicitly. Consenting to enslavement play is not actual enslavement, just as playing cops and robbers makes you neither cop nor robber. We are not enslaving our fantasy to the small spaces in which racism and sexism would enclose us. A well-meaning white woman steps up to a white man to accuse, and he throws it back at her, asks if that what she wants to see and, if so, why? It was quite a moment.
My sister knows about my BDSM interests. And at one point, she asked me whether my real-life sexual assault as a teen played into this part of who I am as an adult. I said no but, well, who can tell with absolute accuracy when the story of who you are sexually roots itself? I don’t see that as my origin story because I do not want to give it that power. But I don’t know. Do my earliest journals betray an interest proceeding the attack? Where are those journals? How would I have written about it as a teen? Where did those interests come from? Stories of domination and submission, master and slave are very much a part of the nation’s narrative. The fetishization of enslaved blackness – of Black cocks and cunts there for the taking – is part of the American enslavement reality. Who knows if, when, or how those stories seeped into the fundament of my girlish fantasies to later grow into who I am as a woman in kink. I don’t know, so can’t reduce it to that.
I am reminded of an incident that happened in my early 20s. At the time, I was working at as the coordinator of the Washington Peace Center, which was being hosted in the attic rooms of a Quaker meeting house. Quakers tend to be predominantly white. But the faith played a significant role in the U.S. slavery abolition movement. Although the American arm of the faith came late to the cause, its vocal antislavery positioning and its furtive participation in the Underground Railroad gave it clout and experience in anti-racism work.
Yet, this Quaker meeting house was having some trouble. This meeting had a Black man as a member. If he was not the only Black member of the meeting, he was one of an insignificant few. We had never spoken. Any contact would have merely been in passing – the acknowledgement of another Black face in white space. Yet one day, I opened the Washington Peace Center’s mail and found a letter from him, handwritten in a beautiful script, offering to be my sex slave.
Now, mind you, I was already liberal and progressive, including in my knowledge/ideas of sexual desire. Prudishness was in no way a driver of my response. But I was also a feminist. I was indignant that some man who had never spoken with me could nevertheless feel so empowered and entitled as to approach me in my workplace. I contacted the meeting house with my complaint, only to learn that I was merely the latest in a queue of them. The others, however, were white women of the meeting.
White supremacy can serve as cover and opportunity for male supremacy. In this case, the white male leadership of the meeting didn’t want to turn out a Black man. They didn’t have many Blacks in their membership, despite their history of “good works”; turning him out would mean one less. So instead, over the objections of the targeted women – white and Black – the white male leadership closed ranks around him. He could stay. Any white woman of the meeting was thus sacrificed on the pillar of their good white liberalism. They could choose to leave (and many did) because the meeting wasn’t going to confront this Black man with his inappropriate and absolutely unacceptable behavior.
We live in a new time. His handwritten letter made its way through the U.S. postal service to the Peace Center mailbox in the mid 1990s. Email was not yet the preferred mode of personal communication. FetLife, the premier global social networking site for the fetish and kink community, wouldn’t even be launched until 2008, more than a decade later. And the World Wide Web wouldn’t become the preferred safe haven for predators until much later.
And no kink shaming. I have no issues with people who want to enslave themselves, to submit or supplicate themselves at the feet of a big-m Mistress. But there are times and spaces for that. Maybe today, post #metoo awareness, the meeting would approach the situation differently, not giving him carte blanche to explore his kink at the expense of the women he invited to dominate him. Hopefully he found his times and space, and stopped using his religious community as his personal fetish shopping ground.