The Personal is Still Political

It’s funny, I’d never read the original paper that coined the term “the personal is political” until I was getting ready to write this blog post. It’s an interesting read. The basic point, from my perspective, is that you can’t separate what we do (or what happens to us) individually, from what happens in society. It’s all connected. Interpersonal social dynamics interweave with group dynamics, differences in culture, history and oppression.

What makes this even more true today is that even more than the late 60’s when that article was written, we live in a society that commodifies everything. There are absolutely a lot of problems with this, but this blog post is not a rail against commodification — that train has left the station, and we’re stuck with it, unless we wish to radically change the way we all live our lives. (I don’t see that coming down the pike anytime soon.)

This year, for Gay Pride, Kink.com, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in internet porn, specifically around BDSM, had a prison-themed party. Here’s a little taste of the promotional material:

What kind of trouble will 3000 of the world’s hottest men get into when in lockdown? Let your fantasies run wild in solitary, fall in love in the shower, plan your jailbreak with your mates, celebrate your creative freedom, in Pride weekend’s BIGGEST circuit party of the year!

Now as you might imagine, there was some degree of outrage at the idea that playing at prison is a good idea for a party for Gay Pride. It’s a really horrible idea. I don’t know who came up with it, but I can think of about 50 different reasons why it should never have happened. Some people rightly protested, and Kink.com’s response to the protest has been also horrifying.

To me, why it could happen, is a much more interesting question than why it did happen. I was in a couple of different Facebook conversations about it, and I thought that I should lay out my perspective in a more ordered, lengthy fashion.

First off, I want to be clear that when it comes to sexuality, I’m libertarian. I think consenting adults should be able to do whatever it is we want to do with each other, and although that party was a horrible idea, kink.com had the right to put it on, and people had a right to go. That said, I am also relentlessly committed to consciousness. I have the habit of doing what I can to shine a light on everything I do in my life and examine it, and ask about whether it is really resonant with my values and higher purpose. Some things I can easily reconcile, and others are a lot harder, because we live in complicated, problematic times, and I’m human (and not a Buddha.) I do have the habit of shining that same light to everything I come in contact with (for good or ill, depending on your point of view, I guess.)

So back to the question, why could this happen? Is it just some one person’s weird idea that it might be fun to have a party where people play at being in prison? Not so much. From my perspective, it’s a reflection of personal play, combined with the commodification of that play.

Being queer in the Bay Area means that you know people, and are exposed to things that are more edgy than, say, living in New England. I do actually rather like that about it. One thing that I’ve been exposed to is sexual play that includes a dynamic that involves drastic power imbalances. For instance, pretending to be prison guard and prisoner, or master and slave. Some people just play at this in the privacy of their bedroom, others play in play parties, and some others live that life 24/7.

I’m going to be clear here — I do have my kinky (I actually say curly) edges, but some particular kinds of role play have always been difficult for me to swallow.  And the reason is that they reflect very real power imbalances that real people do (or did) experience every day in ways that are (or were) very, very less than fun–in fact, in ways that are (and were) devastating to them. Further, some of them are (or were) condoned and institutional, and reflect (or reflected) the very real manifestations of oppression.

Of course, that is their power. People play at being, say, the plumber and the housewife all the time, and it can be kinda sexy, but it doesn’t have an edge, does it? I know that some might argue that embracing those extreme power differentials in the context of sexual play is transformative. I can imagine that might be true in some situations, but I’m not utterly convinced, particularly for dynamics that reflect situations of real oppression. Prison guard/prisoner play, even between people in the privacy of their own bedroom, minimizes the lived reality of people and objectifies the people who are oppressed.  I’m sure it’s fun, though.

But that’s the problem. From my perspective, pleasure is trumping consciousness. And the result?  Add that to the commodification of everything, and add a little dash of OITNB, and you get… The Kink.com prison play party. It was inevitable. I could also write a long treatise on the problematic nature of master/slave play, but luckily, there wasn’t a kink.com slave auction  for Pride.

Sex and sexuality is powerful, fun, enlivening, sacred and transformative. And it can’t be separated from society and its imbalances, oppressions, divisions, and complications. We have to shine the same light onto it as we’d shine onto anything else. We have to be willing to at least look at the effects of our personal choices in  how we find pleasure.