Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Words and Attitudes

Take a look at the picture. It is from a Bars and Stripes episode named "Silence is Broken", but I call it "Girls With An Attitude". We have Leia-Ann Woods with her usual bitchy snarl, Niki Flynn giving us her best "I'm appalled!" look, and Adele Haze as the overburdened peacemaker. What is all the fuss about? Well, from what I understand, it starts with Leia making a pass at Adele - the usual cinema verite stuff. So this displeases Niki, and Leia calls her a nutter. Imagine that! Niki, of all people... Anyway, after this insult, violent mayhem ensues.

Such is the power of words. If you read my Non-BDSM Guide to BDSM Terms, you know that I am keenly interested in the subject. Most philosophers are - words are just fascinating little things.

In role-playing and corporal punishment, words can be a powerful turn-on. A kinky friend of mine thoroughly enjoys being called a "whore" or "slut" during a scene. Is that because she just happens to like these expressions, per se? I don't think so. Imagine that someone were to write her an email saying: "You should be ashamed of yourself, indulging in this BDSM filth that promotes violence against women! You are a disgusting whore!" Knowing my friend, I doubt she could rise to the dignity of feeling bothered by such a slur from an obvious simpleton. But I am sure that she wouldn't enjoy the word from that kind of source, either.

So where's the difference? Needless to say, it's in the context - an "in character" BDSM scene is totally different from someone sending you hate mail. It's not really the literal meaning of a word that makes us feel a certain way, it's the context - the intention and the attitude of the speaker, for one thing. The words themselves are quite harmless. They are mere tools - what matters is how you apply them.

Not even the worst insults are "bad words" in themselves. Take, for example, the word "nigger". That one is (rightfully) considered extremely offensive. Literally, it means "black", derived from the Latin word "niger". Which isn't all that horrible, is it? But the point here is that the word has a very bad history - which is just another term for "context". For centuries, it has been used by white people as a slur against those with darker skins. We avoid the term because, in most contexts, it implies racism.

Note that we don't mind if Eddie Murphy uses the word. Quentin Tarantino movies are full of it, too, but no one in his right mind believes that Tarantino is a racist - for one thing, he regularly casts African-American actors. On the other hand, if some moron from a white supremacist group were to use the very same term, we would be alarmed. Again, it's all about the context. We should be concerned about the speaker and his attitude, not about the mere language he uses. There are no "bad words" as such, and you are not going to eliminate bigotry simply by outlawing a list of certain terms.

Still, some people argue that words themselves are dangerous, and they promote their little taboo lists. Politicians, religious fundamentalists, lobby groups and plain old "concerned citizens" all have certain words they don't want you to say. They will pretend that it is all for your own good (usually "protection of the family", the all-time favourite excuse for censorship). The real motivation is to gain and uphold power. Controlling language is the best way to control thought.

In truth, words never harmed anyone - attitudes do. A supporter of censorship will always refuse to acknowledge this very significant distinction, and he will try to blur it with over-simplified arguments that ignore context.

Interestingly, most of these types (the self-appointed language policemen) also have a big problem with BDSM as an activity, and they use the same approach here. They will take what we do out of its context and look only at the surface - a domme spanking her sub is basically "the same action" as a husband hitting his wife or a mother hitting her child, so therefore, it is "abuse". When the censorious nitwits realize that the claim is just too damn stupid to be supportable, they will retreat to the weaker, but equally fallacious position that BDSM at least "encourages abuse".

All of this is nonsense for a very simple and, one would think, obvious reason: BDSM is consensual while abuse isn't. It is neither equivalent to nor does it encourage real violence. Again, it is the context of the action that makes all the difference. Like any word, the basic act of spanking someone is really "neutral" in itself - what matters is who the two individuals are and what intentions they have.

It is so clear that, on the face of it, the point doesn't even seem to be worth mentioning. But because what we do and the feelings we have are so powerful in their own way, we sometimes become fraught with doubt ourselves. Questions arise, such as: can I really be a submissive woman and a feminist at the same time? Or, can I honestly say that I oppose torture when I get turned on by images that look like torture?

Of course we can. But it's an insight that requires a lot of self-exploration and isn't always as "easy" as I've made it out to be. I had the same questions myself and I still wrestle with them sometimes, because the journey is never fully over. However, we should always keep in mind that it's not merely what we do, it's our attitudes that matter. We mustn't confuse ourselves (or let ourselves be confused) into believing that adult consensual BDSM is objectionable somehow. It is not, and moreover, we should not be afraid to let others who don't share our kink know why that is.


Pandora said...

I had the same questions myself and I still wrestle with them sometimes

I didn't realise you were a submissive woman...

*grins and runs away*

Ludwig said...

Sometimes, I wish I was! Submissive, dominant, switching, whatever - but definitely a woman. I used to be quite content with nature's gender selection coincidences, but the more I see of how things work in the spanking community, the more the thought of being female appeals to me.

Imagine the possibilities: I could go to all the "limited male entry" and "women and couples welcome" fetish parties alone. I would pay less for tickets and sometimes nothing at all. A whole lot of people would want to play with me - maybe not all of them great guys, but I would tell myself, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, that even bad offers are better than no offers at all.

If I wanted to work as a spanking model, I would have a much bigger selection of producers to choose from than my male counterparts, and more professional, more interesting producers at that. I would even get some nice pocket money, while male subs (and doms) are either a) paid substantially less, b) not paid at all, or c) expected to pay themselves.

If a male colleague were to complain about that, I could turn to the producer for support, who would kindly point out to him that: "People only watch the movies because of the women, anyway!" As a sub, I'd be the heroine damsel in distress, as a domme, the unapproachable goddess. No matter what role I'm in, the focus of attention would firmly be on me.

In other words, many doors would be wide open for me that are closed for men or require a lot more effort from them.

And after another day of fun and creativity, I could lean back and blog about how horribly hard it is to reconcile my kinky side with my "appalled inner feminist".

Naturally, if a bitter male reader were to interrupt my self-absorbed theorizing with the claim that this is, in his view, a rather pleasant "luxury problem", I would call him an insensitive chauvinist pig who should be ashamed of himself because his forefathers have been oppressing women for thousands of years...

It does sound like tremendous fun. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I'd love to give it a try and find out!

Pandora said...

I appreciate that you're being facetious, but I think several of the above comments are unnecessary. Are you trying to provoke your female readers into leaving appalled feminist responses so that you can feel smug about how no-one understands you or appreciates your sense of humour? Put down the sarcasm and the barbed personal remarks, please. At no point have I (or anyone else) tried to tell you that your experiences of sexism are invalid, so it seems rather rude of you to tell me the same thing, even if you mean it in jest. I can appreciate your point of view, but I'm not laughing.

My original comment was intended to gently highlight the point that whatever oppression you've experienced on account of your gender, and however valid and important those experiences are, they are *not* the same as the experiences of a submissive women. The patriarchy hurts everyone, but you can't ever assume that you can speak for someone else or for someone else's experiences.

You are absolutely right that women experience many kinds of privelege in our society. I think that the kink scene is unusually pro-women in this regard, which is possibly why a lot of feminists seem to surface here despite being told by the feminist establishment that submission to men is internalised misogyny. The self-doubt felt by feminist submissives is a real response to hostility within the political movement many of us would otherwise choose to identify with. And that self-doubt does not erase our female privelege, any more than it erases your own experiences of oppression as a man in a scene where women are more empowered than they are in mainstream culture.

Everyone's experiences are different. I value being able to read about yours, and it's very useful to have a mirror put up to my own experience and discover the ways in which both men and women are screwed by our society. I sympathise with the difficulties you experience as a man in the spanking community. But it doesn't give you the right to trivialise my experiences. We each have our own struggles, and we need to work together to create an upheaval in cultural expectations and behaviour, not make sniping comments suggesting that the oppression you've experienced is the only real kind.

Ludwig said...

I was indeed jesting and certainly not trying to offend you or to trivialize your experiences. As I seem to have done that, I apologize. My attempts at humour can get too barbed for comfort. I'm a fan of the George Carlin school in that regard, but unfortunately not in the same league.

Please note, if it should lessen your indignation, that the sarcasm wasn't directed at you personally or at the feminist cause. Really, it wasn't. I can see that it could be read as such, so again, sorry about that, I should have been clearer about it.

The barbed humour was directed at 1) The way things seem to work in the spanking community, whoever is responsible for that (I think we all are), 2) F/M video producers in particular (most are male as far as I know), and most importantly, 3) At myself and my own feelings of bitterness which I sometimes have (it is my instinctive response - rather than cry, why not try and laugh about it?).

Would I talk like that, the way I parodied in my original comment, if I was a woman? No, certainly not. Neither did I want to insinuate that you do. It's pure satire, so please, judge it as a poor attempt at humour if you like, but not as a serious reflection of my views or as an insult to you.

There is a grain of truth in it, in so far as it is humour spawned by anger and a reflection of feelings that I sometimes have, on a gut level and previous to any serious, rational discourse. But of course, once you do examine these things rationally, they aren't all that simple.

So, in jest, I might say: "Look, she has all these privileges, and now she has the nerve to complain!" But obviously, that is not a fair assessment of the situation. I do believe that the points you raise in the feminism debate are valid and important, and just because I experience my own share of injustic doesn't make them any less so.

Does that mean I shouldn't make the joke, though? I acknowledge that I made it poorly, fair enough. I'll try to be less barbed and more good-natured next time. But in principle, what speaks against poking fun at ourselves and at our entrenched attitudes, even and especially when it concerns a serious subject?

If anything, I feel the debate about gender issues could benefit from some occasional self-deprecation. If we have anything in common as men and women, it is the tendency to take ourselves and our own personal problems way too seriously while being blind to the problems of the other side. I'm as guilty of that as you are, probably more so.

I didn't emphasize the "self" part of "self-deprecation" enough in my original post. The gist of the satire was supposed to be: "Kinky men are screwed, but so what? Lighten up!" If I was trying to trivialize anything, it wasn't your experiences or the feminist cause. It was my own experiences.

Because whatever sense of injustice or anger I may feel at times, I refuse to let it take me to the point where I can't enjoy myself anymore, or where I can't poke fun at myself and say: "It's not the end of the world, you know."

Niki Flynn said...

It's never too barbed for me and my sense of humour is as twisted and black as they come. When you put yourself "out there" in the spotlight and expose yourself to public scrutiny and ridicule, you can't afford to take yourself too seriously. (And Pandora, claws in, you cat - I'm not implying that you do!)

I don't think your satire was a poor attempt, Ludwig, as I've often made the exact same jokes myself. After all, as a girl who sometimes roleplays being a boy, I understand completely how hard it is for you boys. ;-)

Yeah, context ist alles. I would roll my eyes and exclaim a very American "what-EVER!" to some jerk who sent me an abusive email. But a trusted friend can do the most hideous, dehumanising and twisted things to me, using the exact same words, and I'll only love him more.

And yes, a BDSM torture fetishist CAN be a sincere supporter of Amnesty International. And not just out of guilt, either.

Ludwig said...

Pandora and I have begun a little private email exchange that will probably turn into a nice chat, enriching for both of us. There is no bad blood, and I'm happy about that - while I do enjoy the occasional nasty jibe among friends, it is not my intention to belittle or hurt a fellow blogger.

If I'm ridiculing anyone, it certainly isn't her or kinky feminists, it's the people (male and female) who perpetrate sexism. Which can include all of us, in our less thoughtful moments. So I'm making fun of these attitudes, "People only watch because of the dommes!" (condescending towards men) as well as "Feminists are self-absorbed princesses!" (condescending in the other direction).

Having said that, I think in hindsight that my rant, although in jest, was taking things too far. Not in general principle, but because of the fact that Pandora doesn't really know me and had no way of being sure that my remarks weren't meant as a personal insult or as a serious attack (in the guise of humour) on her feminist ideals.

Twisted comedy and jibes are fine, but you have to make sure that they come across the right way. So caution is the better part of valor when talking to someone who doesn't know you personally, or the fact that you habitually indugle in the same barbed sarcasm at your own expense...

It's not the first time I get a justified slap on the wrist. It happens when you are an incorrigible adherent of the Pope Benedict XVI. school of debating:

"I punch you in the face, then you punch me in the face, and then we sit down and discuss what we didn't like about it."