Teach your children well

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Some years ago I had two friends in the BDSM world who happened to be a married couple. He, J, was the master and she, r, was his slave. I tended to have most to do with r. We often talked about this and that, mutual acquaintances, BDSM principles and so on. It was a good, respectful relationship based on shared interests.

One day I received a message from r saying that a group they were part of had ordered both of them not have anything further to do with me. There was a metaphorical click like a telephone being hung up, and then they were gone.

This order came without warning. The group behind the order never contacted me. I don't know who they were. I don't know why the order was given.

Much time passed and then I unexpectedly received an email from r saying that she and J were moving to England. They were no longer bound by the orders of the group and she wanted to resume contact, catch up and find out how things were going.

In the BDSM and leather worlds the activities and relationships which we share and indulge in often happen behind closed doors, away from scrutiny. They are frequently very private things. In one sense, this is how they should be.

In another sense, this is not how they should be. When I talk of scrutiny, it's not just scrutiny from others to which I refer. What we do, how we live and how we relate to others are things we should scrutinise ourselves. We should look at ourselves and evaluate how well our choices and actions sit with our own personal values. More than that, the choices we make and the actions we do should reflect our own values and be in harmony with them.

This is sometimes easier said than done because there is that terrible evil called temptation which we need to avoid.

Once upon a time I was sitting alone in a gay/lesbian bar just after lunch. I had gone there with a couple of lesbian friends because it was a talent show afternoon and they were going to perform a song. I was sitting on my own while they were backstage preparing and putting on make-up when a woman came over to me and said to me, "My master wants to know if you are gay?" I said no and she walked away.

To me this was odd behaviour for a number of reasons. Firstly, the guy was in the same room as me. How enthusiastic must he be if he can't be bothered getting up to talk to me in person?

Secondly, if he was hoping for some homosexual action involving me, surely it's going to be counterproductive to send a woman over to make the opening move.

Thirdly, and most importantly for the present discussion, it was an inappropriate approach. Maybe in his world every gay and lesbian establishment is a hotbed of leather action with everyone just crying out for a flogging, but this was an otherwise normal bar. No one was dressed in chaps. No one was decorated with chains. No one was wandering around carrying an armload of floggers or a coil of rope. Everyone was dressed in jeans or similar. In this circumstance is it appropriate to involve a stranger in your own master/slave relationship? I would say it's not.

Would it be appropriate for a slave to ask this same thing - "My master wants to know if you are gay?" - of someone in the local supermarket? After Sunday morning services outside church? At day care? I would suggest it's not appropriate in these places. What then makes it appropriate at a gay/lesbian bar on a pleasant weekend afternoon?

Fourthly, it's just not a winning thing to do. If you were in a vanilla context, in a bar with a couple of friends, would you send one of your friends over to start the process of picking up someone? Would you say, My first move on that cute chick at the end of the bar would be to sidle up to my friend Joe and ask, "Joe, how about you going over to that lovely lady, pointing me out to her and then asking her if she'd like get to know me?" Clearly, this is not on. Indeed, were this to go ahead Joe is more likely to be the winner than you.

I actually suspect that this behaviour is a variation of what we see with some parents. They'll drive with their child to the local store, park the car, and then wait in the car and send the kid to do some errand such as to buy something or to return a broken product. Just substitute "slave" for "child" and you have it.

Sending a slave to do errands like these achieves two things for the master. Firstly, it distances them from feedback. If there's a problem with what they've sent the slave to do, the slave has to deal with it. The master avoids any direct involvement or any possible confrontation. Secondly, it saves the master from the physical effort of getting up off his butt.

Unfortunately, it also does a third thing. It sends a subtle message to the slave. It says, I only have you so that I can send you to do crap errands. Instead, and perhaps obviously to some, the master should be going and doing these things themselves to serve as an example, to take responsibility, and to encounter, endure and resolve any problems rather than their slave having to do it. It is important especially since their slave isn't really equipped for the errand because: a) they are not the main stakeholder, and b) they can't make all the executive decisions which might need to be made.

Finally, errands like this lead the master towards a pathological and chronic attitude of self-fostered laziness.

What it's actually all about is abusing power for some benefit. John Dalberg-Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." BDSM and leather, mastery and slavery, are often very much about power and that same risk is very much present.

In the case of the master in the gay/lesbian bar, by using his slave as he did it was a cheap way to reach out. It wasn't a good way. It wasn't a way that was likely to have success. But from his side it required very little effort - just a few words to his slave - and there was no other cost to him. There was no risk to him of an unexpected reaction from me because he didn't actually talk to me. There was no consequence for him to do it. It was a throwaway. And it's power used badly on the off chance that I'd be hot for some guy-on-guy action.

This is like the example with which I started this article. I don't know why the group decided to order my friendship with J and r to end. Maybe they had a good reason. Maybe they didn't. Whatever it was, because they didn't communicate with me and because they used their power over J and r to get their way, there was no consequence for them. I didn't get a chance to appeal, object or respond in any way. They isolated themselves from any consequences.

Groups - whether they are formal groups with rules or fees, or whether they're ad hoc groups held together simply by the members having common interests - gain members because the group provides some benefit. It could be that membership of the group gives you access to other people with the same interests as you, or it could be that there's a benefit from numbers such as where membership fees let the group buy something that the individual members couldn't afford individually. For BDSM folk, maybe the group provides connection to other masters and slaves who have similar values, similar experience or training, or similar awareness. Whatever it is, this provides a motivation for members to follow the directions of the higher-ups in the group, even if you don't agree with them, because if you don't toe the line you risk losing the benefits.

I don't know why J and r followed the directions of the group to break contact with me. Maybe they'd given their word to follow the dictates of the group when they joined and because they were honourable folk that's what they did. Or maybe the benefits of being in the group, possibly other important friendships, were at risk if they didn't follow the order. I'm confident that they didn't want to break contact with me because as soon as the group was out of the picture they got back in contact. Unfortunately, J and r left the country soon after they were liberated from this controlling group and I didn't have a chance to revisit the past with them and find out if they knew why they had been given the order they had.

More than likely, I think, this order was an abuse of power by the group. After all, you probably wouldn't join a group expecting that they'd decide who your friends were once you were a member so an order doing precisely that would seem inappropriate.

I think there are a few reasons why these sorts of situations arise.

One is that we BDSM folk aren't surrounded by examples of better ways of doing things. In vanilla land we see lots of other people around us having relationships, interacting with each other, and we see examples of what works and what doesn't. We frequently see what happens when things aren't done well. In media and on television we have shows where moral messages are part of the entertainment. We BDSM folk don't have that. We don't have TV shows with profound scenes like this:

Young master: I'm not happy with all the time my slave is spending with her friend Jamie so I'm going to order her to end the relationship.
Wise master: That's not such a good idea. Have you really thought about this?
Young master: Sure I have. She's my slave. I can do what I want with her.
Wise master: That may be true, but have you checked with Jamie to see how she would feel about this?
Young master: No. Why should I? She's not my slave. I don't even know her.
Wise master: That's exactly the point. Just having a slave and bossing them around doesn't make you a master. Being in charge and taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions is being a master. And if you don't know Jamie, then you don't know what sort of consequences there are going to be when you cut off her relationship with your slave.
Young master: I don't have time to do that.
Wise master: Then you don't have time to really be a master.

It would be nice if there was a BDSM or leather channel on cable TV which had shows like "Life With Master" or "The Slave Show" where issues could be aired and shared. But we don't have that. What we often have instead is people getting into BDSM on their own and then having to make up their own rules of behaviour and values because there are few-to-no examples available for them to learn from. Even with the best intentions they can't appreciate every aspect of BDSM. Often in ignorance they decide something is a good idea and don't have any way of learning that it isn't.

This reminds me of a story I tell from time to time about a master at a BDSM conference I once attended. He did a presentation on fire play and demonstrated it with a well-endowed young lady sitting topless in a straight-backed chair. He smeared some flammable fluid on her boobs and lit it. A couple of other masters in the front row quickly put a stop to the demonstration because: a) there was a serious risk of the girl inhaling the flames rising up towards her face, and b) because there was a serious risk of setting her long hair on fire. The master doing the demo hadn't known about these risks. He hadn't thought about them. He'd developed his understanding of fire play simply by doing it. In the little town where he lived there wasn't anyone more experienced to enlighten him and it was only luck which had prevented him having an accident before this.

Without the benefit of accumulated experience, it's a hard or even impossible ask to invent or discover what's right and create your own rules.

It doesn't have to be this way, at least not as much as it is.

At times and for various reasons, such as the law or social acceptance, we do need to hide our BDSM relationships and activities from some people. But not all people. Even for folk who only have a very private BDSM relationship with one partner, it's important to have opportunities to share and learn from others. Who knows, maybe dangling your male slave upside down by his testicles for a couple of hours isn't such a good idea after all and you've been lucky so far.

If any of your master/slave activities involve anyone else in any way - if you give orders which might affect them - make sure they know what's going on and that you get feedback so you know things are working (or not).

By making sure we talk… and listen, we increase the chances we get things right, even without always realising it. In a way we BDSM folk are disadvantaged because isolation is common for us. Because of this we need to make the extra effort to ensure that we are doing the right things by design and not by accident, and that our choices are really socially responsible in a wide sense and not just things which seem OK at the time.

A number of people who have read my work have observed that I seem like an introvert. This is, in fact, quite true. And like many introverts I only have a very small number of friends. They are very important to me. One of my two closest friends is A, now an ex-slave.

Many years ago, A was ordered by her then-master to end our friendship. Again, this was a situation where I didn't know the guy. I got the message, no explanation of why, and then she was gone. It was actually quite devastating and distressing for me because we were very close and spoke frequently. For me it was very much like she had suddenly died and it took me quite a while to get over this.

Six months later he changed his mind and she was back. I never found out why he had this change of heart. However, I can say that my friendship with A lasted many years beyond the end of his mastery of her.

It is perhaps telling that while I actually know an awful lot of masters and slaves, the only people who behave like this are people whose faces I have never seen.

It is very easy to operate in the dark, in secret in BDSM. But by doing so it creates a fertile ground for inappropriate behaviours and attitudes to develop because there is no oversight. Stepping out from the dark into the light forces oversight, reflection and criticism.

There used to be a local submissive cabal here in Australia. I suspect that there were others elsewhere, but I mention this particular one because I was personally affected by it. This cabal was a group of disaffected female submissives who would get together, either in person or online, and bad-mouth and lie about dominants and masters who didn't do what they wanted. This could be because the dominant didn't "play" with them, or because he had broken up with someone they knew, and so on. It was basically a group of submissives who self-authorised themselves to abuse dominants. This extended to actual property damage.

They would also operate in the dark, either anonymously online or they would talk about the dominants behind their backs or in fora which the dominants didn't frequent. I had reports from submissive friends of mine about their activities and they weren't nice. As well as focussing on me and other local dominants and masters, a very respectable master I knew ended up in court after property of his (his car) was damaged one night.

Their intention was to be deliberately malicious. Fortunately they're gone now.

But even being part of a well-intentioned group doesn't automatically prevent bad behaviours. The master I mentioned above, the then-master of A, was part of what was, as far as I could tell, a loose collection of individuals, leather families and houses. At the time they had a rather grandiose name for themselves. I don't know if they still exist, but back then it was claimed they had over a thousand members around the world. I used to think that having this many people united would create a sort of continuity which the smaller and isolated pockets of BDSM enthusiasts seem to lack. It could be one in which understanding could develop and be handed down, where sharing would create a better understanding of what is right. But alas, no.

It turned out that they were rather secretive and closed and this was not conducive to right behaviour, regardless of intention.

Recently, I was watching a talk by an Arab-American comedienne who has cerebral palsy (*). She commented that as she was growing up no one made fun of her disability. It's only when she became known that she started to receive insults from the Internet. The Internet can be a dark place and people can say things with effective anonymity… and they did. She made an interesting and very relevant point saying that, "maybe it still takes a village to teach our children well".

What we have in our nowadays BDSM world is individuals and small groups frequently disconnected from each other. We need to find a way to include them so that we become a large village community, where we can know each other, share by example and learn what is right or wrong for us all. Just doing stuff in isolated pockets doesn't work.

It's interesting that workshops and demonstrations are common events in BDSM but courses on honour, respect and trust are not popular in the BDSM or leather worlds. Bondage and flogging - they're popular, but honour, respect and trust seem to be things best taught by example and to do this we need to get together.

I don't know that there's a solution we can simply apply which will make all the problems I mentioned go away. What we can do though, are a number of things which will help:

  1. Don't operate in the dark. Make an effort not to hide what you're doing, and make sure that you are on the front line when there are consequences to what you do,
  2. Try to provide a good example to others,
  3. Discuss situations and problems with others, especially others outside of your group. People in your group are likely to be supportive of you regardless both because you're in their group, and because they're likely to have similar opinions to yours. This is not always what is most helpful. You are going to learn more from people who have different opinions to your own, not from people who agree with you,
  4. When what you do involves anyone else - in any way at all - reflect on the impact on them: friends and relatives of slaves, people who live nearby, friends and relatives of masters, and so on. Think as widely afield as possible. If in doubt, ask. Even if you're sure, ask anyway,
  5. Share your understandings with others. Especially be prepared to put what you do and your attitudes under the microscope for others to examine and criticise,
  6. Consider how to work with others to develop and share values and understanding over the long term.

It's very easy to think of plausible-sounding reasons not to do the right thing. If any of you reading this have something you know you should do but don't want to do, contact me and I'll quickly come up with plausible-sounding reasons to help you avoid whatever it is: Maybe you're not feeling well, maybe you have an important meeting coming up elsewhere and you need to be rested and have a clear head for it, maybe we can say someone else should be doing it instead of you, maybe we can say that it's not appropriate for you to get involved, maybe it's now too late for it to be done and it was someone else's fault for not asking sooner. See how easy it is to come up with excuses?

The issue is not the dexterity with which someone comes up with reasons to avoid doing the right thing. What is important is how hard they'll work to make sure that they don't avoid it. Make no mistake, doing the right thing often involves actual work. It can be hard, and it can frequently involve you being brutally honest with yourself. Yes, it's often easier not to do the right thing, but it's not right.

And remember, being able to do something doesn't mean that you should.

This is especially important in BDSM where we can easily arrange for things to be done out of sight so that we're not subject to scrutiny. The master who sent his slave to check if I was gay, the people who ordered my master and slave friends to not contact me, and the master who ordered my close friend to end our friendship are all examples of this. I'm sure, if you asked any of them, that they'd have excellent-sounding reasons for doing what they did. That's not the point.

Stepping out from the dark into the light compels oversight, reflection and criticism. These are good things. We need these. We need our village to be illuminated by ideas, shared experiences and open discussion. We need to get rid of the dark areas, the hidden spaces. We need to make a special effort to open them up and keep them open.

So. What are things like in your village?

(*) Maysoon Zayid: I got 99 problems... palsy is just one