Short

Pro-sex, and anti-prison, but what about kink?

San Francisco’s pride parade is likely the most famous in the world, but this year it was disrupted by controversy and even a few arrests as members of the radical group ‘Gay Shame’ protested against the heavily promoted kink party ‘Prison of Love.’ The party had been advertised as a chance to ‘get incarcerated,’ and one blurb read, ‘Grab your spot on the bunkbed and party in the prison yard with hot inmates, guards, bad boys, bitches, and muscle boys!’ In response, Gay Shame spread their own message across town on colorful posters.  ‘While trans women and gender nonconforming people of color are kidnapped, tortured, brutalized and murdered by the prison industrial complex, KINK.COM and SF PRIDE © have once again turned these practices into a joke,’ the publicity read. ‘On June 28th as hordes of white gays dance the night away to the deep thump of domination, GAY SHAME calls on everyone to pull the fire alarms and shut this fucking shit down; because PRIDE © is a nightmare, prisons are not sexy, and boycotting is not enough.’

During Pride, or rather in the early hours of the day after (July 29th), Gay Shame reported that a protest of  ‘several hundred’ against the party led to protestors being ‘clubbed, tackled, bloodied, and beaten’ and at least seven arrests, with four immediate releases and three protestors released several days later.[1] A kink.com spokesman in turn claimed that these protestors had grown violent, attacking partiers and security guards. The events are still disputed, although no charges were ultimately filed.

 

Gay Shame poster in the mission district of San Francisco. Photograph taken by the author.
Gay Shame poster in the mission district of San Francisco. Photograph taken by the author.

 

Gay Shame is deeply, self-consciously, and fiercely anti-assimilation, placing itself in direct opposition to the mainstream American left wing. They feel that the remarkable successes of the mainstream gay rights movement have simply made the gay community into a version of the straight community that used to exclude them: conformist, capitalist, and otherwise in alignment with oppressive social forces. (The group’s unusual name is intended as a blunt antithesis to the mainstream movement, Gay Pride). Their website’s official statement reads, ‘We seek nothing less than a new queer activism that foregrounds race, class, gender and sexuality, to counter the self-serving ‘values’ of gay consumerism and the increasingly hypocritical left. We are dedicated to fighting the rabid assimilationist monster with a devastating mobilization of queer brilliance.’ In this case, the group quite aptly points out the deep influence of capitalism—the prison party’s advertisement flashes half a dozen sponsors in its advertisement video, while the sponsors of the prison-industrial complex are only a little more subtle.

Yet not all of Gay Shame’s attack is so clearly ideologically grounded. A trickier issue at stake—largely unmentioned in anything the group writes—is that the prison is perhaps one of the most common kink themes of all, involving restraints, degradation, humiliation, and power play. It is certainly true that the organizers of San Francisco’s pride parade, as well as the owners and managers of kink.com, might be running a capitalist enterprise with their party. But should they, for the sake of their concerns about real prisons, avoid a theme that features so prominently in the fantasies of sexual minorities? If Gay Shame seeks to foreground sexuality, it seems they do not mean the sexuality of these kinky partygoers. When I emailed them about the topic, I received a (perhaps intentionally?) misspelled and ungrammatical but on-message response:

Gay Shame is pro-sex and pro-kink, but anti-kink.comwhich is a horrid corporation, not a sexual practice.

Their party was not a sex or kink party, but a multimillion dollar circuit party that has the same theme all over the world. Kink,com is not about sexual liberation but about capitalism, they have a history of exploitating their workers, futher gentrifying the Mission all in the name of being the largest porn company in the world.

When I asked the group to comment on the acceptable place for kink and whether a non-capitalist prison party would be acceptable, I received no further response.

Gay Shame is not completely alone in their awkward handling of the issue. Kink—a more all-encompassing term for various less-than-standard sexual practices than the popular term BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism)—tends to play with the heebie-jeebies of even the open-minded and radical. This is because very often, kinky sexuality relates to precisely the kind of images and narratives that would deeply offend both mainstream and radical left-wing people if realized outside of sexual fantasy and sexual play. Some second-wave feminists, for example, could never fully agree about whether kink was a positive exploration of female sexuality or a re-creation of patriarchal power dynamics. Even within the now-popular ‘sex-positive’ framework of feminism and queer activism, it seems simple to say that people’s sexual orientations should be accepted until their orientation plays with oppression itself. This is the sticking point in such a framework—and so common in many ideologies—where the very core of the philosophy, in this case, that people’s sexual proclivities should be accepted no matter what, comes back around to bite itself on the tail.

Thus, in a perhaps surprising turn of events, a large capitalist organization arguably dealt with a question of sexual difference more elegantly than the radical fringe. The CEO of kink.com, Peter Acworth, penned a lengthy response on his blog. Acworth, who was abandoned a PhD at Columbia University to build his pornography empire, writes almost like a clearer version of Judith Butler. He asks his readers to consider that:

Though players may wear a uniform or use language that is traditionally representative of cultural authority, they do so with the understanding that this play queers that representation and alters its meaning. The wearing of uniforms and the use of the tools of authority as sexual props has long been a means through which some members of the queer community have protested and reclaimed the symbols of oppression. I ask you to consider the idea that the use of the prison industrial complex as a party theme does not trivialize the experiences of the oppressed, but trivializes the assumed authority of the oppressor.

Thus far, Acworth’s response has been the most coherent vision from either side of the debate of what kinky sexuality is like, and why it is politically acceptable. This suggests that Gay Shame and similar groups will need to provide a coherent alternative to ‘mainstreaming.’ In order to do this, they must develop a more defined viewpoint about how sexual fantasies fit in with real-life oppression, one that makes the problem with prison themes clearer. Perhaps they will turn directly to the prisons themselves, rather than their ironically and questionably-subversive sexual depictions. Then the group’s claim of being ‘pro-kink’ would also hold more water.

 


[1] The irony of police brutality on those protesting police brutality is, of course, a brutal banality here as in so many protests.

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Sarah Stein Lubrano just finished her MPhil in Intellectual History in Cambridge. Her research looks into feminism, sexual politics, and psychological theory in turn-of-the-century Germany.

 

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The column: The heart’s reason

Pascal wrote “the heart has its reasons that reason does not understand”. Love is an essential part of human nature and experience, as well as philosophy and political life. In this column, Sarah Stein Lubrano explores love, sex, gender, and intimacy.

 


Sarah Stein Lubrano just finished her MPhil in Intellectual History in Cambridge. Her research looks into feminism, sexual politics, and psychological theory in turn-of-the-century Germany.