Last month I focused on the visceral reactions, the gut-level responses, that we sometimes have to other people’s kinks and quirks. I admitted my own failings to instant assessments of my superiority to others, and my belief that I wasn’t alone in my responses.
Within our fabulous and diverse kink community, we are often fractured, damaged and divided by judgment from within. This state seems particularly ironic (if not cruel); given our own peculiarities, it would seem that we’re ideally situated to be each others’ greatest allies. And yet sometimes we are the first to try to bring each other down, judging our own kinks superior to others, judging our own play safer or more morally grounded than others. In the name of the greater good, we tear down rather than supporting and elevating all of those among us who strive to serve, elevate or get off their fellow man (and women) without causing harm in the process.
I addressed the need to question before making snap judgments about what others do (or fantasize about) to get off, and offered up some questions that I ask myself in order to put my own feelings and other people’s situations into context and into perspective before I draw my conclusions. So I hope you keep those messages in mind for what may be my most controversial topic yet... race play, which I define as erotic play that explores power exchange within the dynamics of cultural, ethnic, socio-economic, religious and/or racial differences.
When it comes to race play, probably we think mostly in terms of black-white, but it really is open to all sorts of variations, from white versus the Native Americans to folks of the Judeo-Christian ethic v. followers of Islam. (Pretty topical, huh?)
I should note before going further that there are plenty of references in this article to the "N" word. I don’t know any way around it, nor do I believe I should work around it. We all know what I mean when I say the "N" word, but for those of you who are dense, it rhymes with bigger. As I started to prepare this column, I found my own white, Jewish liberal guilt preventing me from even typing the word out, just like my religion proscribes me from spelling out the name of the higher power to whom I offer prayers (G-d). Such is the power of society and religious conditioning... and so powerful that it must be discussed.
Race play is an emotional, hot-button issue... and one that will undoubtedly get hotter if responses to the new health care reform are any indication of where we are in this country on matters of equality.
When discussing kink and leathersex, one of the differences that I typically identify is the concept of power exchange. In my mind, while kink may include a level of dominance and submission, it’s not critical to the play. (Take spanking, for example. You might enjoy the sensation of being spanked without accepting a submissive role. You might enjoy the excitement of that startling contact of flesh or paddle, glove, etc. on flesh. You might thrill to the anticipation of when the next strike is going to make contact. You might enjoy the warm glow or burning sensations on your skin as the blood rushes to the spanking site, or the sensitivity/pain you feel when you try to sit down afterward. You might even get that "runner’s high" endorphin rush if you are able to sustain a long spanking session when your body provides natural opiate relief as a reward for your ability to take the beating... all of this without any power exchange at all.)
I’m certainly not opposed to vanilla sex or to kinky sex. But my preference is for leather sex. For me, power exchange in combination with kink just makes it hotter.
Take the same spanking scene, but add some dominance and submission, and it is taken to a higher playing field (no matter the players or their roles). If I were to watch a simple spanking scene, the slap-n-tickle would likely bore me without the flow of power. I wouldn’t care if it’s a sub surrendering to the spanking, or whether it’s a dominant pain pig order ordering his sub to spank him until his ass is fiery red. In either scenario, the melding of psychology and physicality takes the play to another level than the mere act of spanking.
If a scene involved not only power exchange, but racial or cultural differences that supported that power exchange-for instance, a concentration camp survivor overpowering a Nazi guard and beating him as a form of cathartic retribution-things are taken to still another level. (And for the record, I do own a pair of WWII German soldier boots that I purchased from ebay that I have worn when I felt particularly aggressive toward blonds.)
As I see it, race isn’t so much about us as it is how we are treated, how we are taught to see ourselves, how we were taught our history and where we’ve come from. My understanding of what it means to be a Jew is from growing up in a household that "supported" Jewish teachings and Hebrew law, even if we didn’t always practice what we preached; it meant attending synagogue and listening for hours to a language that largely remained a mystery to me; it meant having relatives with numbers tattooed on their arms as survivors of the Holocaust, and regular reminders of how many millions of my people died at the hands of the Nazi’s and their supporters; and ultimately the stories of the persecuted Jewish people from the Bible through the Great War taught me about the importance of social justice and the importance of people who would, even if outnumbered, stand up for what is right. This was how I came to identify being a Jew. When I moved out of a poor "Jewish ghetto" in Pittsburgh to the suburbs of Philadelphia, I heard Jewish jokes for the first time. I didn’t understand the punch lines about being cheap, because that wasn’t part of my cultural learning of what it meant to be a Jew. Although some of the jokes were intended to be hurtful, I didn’t even resent the jokes because they didn’t attack my identity. It was like they were joking about people I didn’t even know.
The fact is, sometimes you never know how you’ll feel about things... until you feel them.
And so, using race as a way of connecting to our past, to our ancestors and our history, can sometimes help us know ourselves more. We discover things that we didn’t know about ourselves; we discover we have feelings we didn’t even realize we had until they rise and simmer at the surface or even explore.
But once they are there, exposed, we can deal with them: the inner anger or rage, the pain, the helplessness, and sometimes even forgiveness. Sometimes we can only forgive after we cum... or maybe that’s just me.
I remember my entire body trembled the first time I spanked someone while wearing those Nazi boots. I found myself filled with so much emotion, so much passion... I know it doesn’t sound sexy, but archival documentary footage of the lost and fallen millions in death camps played in the back of my head, when I stuck my feet into those boots. And when I administered the spanking, I struck out with pain, someone else’s pain, pain that was not rightfully mine, and yet I somehow possessed. I remember that I beat him until I cried, right along with him, until we found peace together.
Leather sex to me is like a scene in a Puccini opera where multiple characters express point and counter-point with melodies that are beautiful on their own, but even more exquisitely rapturous and transcendent when layered upon one another. Sex and songs can be good; when they’re really good, they may be elevated to the level of art. And sometimes when they strike just the right chord, when they take us outside ourselves and yet reveal ourselves to us, when they cause us to connect to others in new ways... well, then, they can be spiritual experiences, too.
In Turandot, an icy princess requires suitors to answer three riddles to win her hand in marriage. If a man is unable to answer all three questions, he is slain and beheaded. His corpse is put on display to ward off future advances. In many productions of this opera, you see bloodied heads on pikes. You see the brutality of this practice, the bitterness and the rage against the men who would take her. The ugliness that hangs over the proceedings is acute and obvious; and yet it makes the plight of those who seek her hand (and, of course, her kingdom) not only dramatic, but strangely quixotic. You also understand that Turandot is acting out from fear-the princess before her had ruled peacefully, "resisting the harsh domination of men," as one libretto put it, before being raped and murdered by an invading foreign prince. She is a woman who cannot trust others or herself, so she tries to keep men at a distance. She has built walls around her-in this case, a wall of bodies. And the music that emerges from the hero who has seen her beauty and is willing to sacrifice his life for the chance to be with her, well, it elevates all who watch and listen. He is a dreamer and a romantic. Solving the riddles may win her hand, but his soaring voice and song are what melts the icy heart.
And so it goes with leather sex.
What could appear to be course and ugly at an obvious, visual or aural level can also be profoundly beautiful to those participating in a scene, stirring in ways that are not necessarily easy to identify or understand. Power exchange can melt our hearts in ways that even we don’t necessarily get right away. When done safely with those we trust, it allows us to strip away the layers of artifice and social norms to get to the core of who we are, to discover for whom and for what our hearts truly beat.
And sometimes what gets us most are things that we don’t talk about in polite society, like race and class and religion. Race play is a taboo subject because it’s politically incorrect. It brings up all those things that you’re not supposed to discuss at the dinner table, even a dinner table set by kinky folks.
Because while lots of people will admit enjoying being tied up, it’s generally not socially acceptable to be a white man who ties up Asians he finds on Craigs List and role play about Japanese internment camps. It’s not cool for many persons of color (POC) to admit, for instance, that the infamous "N" word can be hot and sexy. That they like to use it themselves in an erotic context. And when they are with the right guy, no matter what race he is, being called derogatory, racist slurs can sometimes get you harder than a Viagra pill and a tongue up the ass.
So let’s be clear: interracial play in and of itself is not race play. A white person who is more attracted to blacks is not necessarily looking for race play; sometimes you may just like the look. And let’s face it... unless we’re unrepentant and non-selective sluts, we fuck who we’re attracted to.
Conversely, two people of color are engaging in race play if they get involved in a scene that allows for power exchange within the context of their race-for instance, one expresses dominance over the other based on being darker/lighter skinned; maybe one is punished by the other for trying to pass, to being a "sellout" to his race.
One of the most prominent voices (and figures) in race play today is Mo Williams, who also goes by the moniker, the Perverted Negress. I heard the fiercely submissive and beautifully articulate Mo interviewed on the "Young and Kinky" podcast and was fascinated. I then checked out her website (www.mollena.com) and found myself even more intrigued and inspired by someone who puts herself so out there (in mind, body and spirit) for others to see and undoubtedly judge. Although we couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in gender, orientation, D/s dynamics, etc., and although we’ve never met or spoken, I somehow sense she’s a kindred spirit.
Mo defines race play as "any type of play that openly embraces and explores the (either ’real’ or assumed) racial identity of the players within the context of a BDSM scene. The prime motive in a ’Race Play’ scene is to underscore and investigate the challenges of racial or cultural differences."
"The idea that someone might hate you PURELY because of your identity is horrific," she says in an interview with Andrea Plaid, posted on her website. "It dehumanizes you, and it makes you ’less than.’"
She acknowledged in that interview that she has received a lot of resistance from people of color for teaching race play. Plaid suggested that people of color who take public positions are expected to inspire and uplift the race, to which Mo responded: "My vagina isn’t really interested in uplifting the race."
She is particularly pointed that the criticism is often targeted at submissives in race play; black doms are not viewed as critically. "There has to be room in the dungeon for everyone’s emotional play," she says.
She also indicated that the black community continues to have a strong church base that remains very conservative.
"Now that we’ve reached a point where we actually have a fighting chance, people don’t want anything that may jeopardize or mitigate in THEIR eyes our position of moral superiority. It is the idea we are ’above’ that," she says. "And so we deny ourselves the very fucking freedoms that our ancestors, our parents and grandparents struggled to give us. Freedom has no business being compartmentalized so that it remains frozen in some idealized space. Freedom is messy. Ask the Iraqi people."
It is not self loathing that drives Mo to engage in race play. In fact, it would appear to be quite the opposite. As she describes it, even as a submissive, it sounds like a form of empowerment: "All stereotypes are based on facts and observations that have been bred and fed to damage and wound and kill. If you take that snarling dog, that offensive beast, and tame it to your own ends, you win."
Obviously, this can be heavy-hitting stuff, exposing deeply rooted emotional baggage laid down on us through years of social teachings and a history where civil rights were denied far longer than they’ve been granted.
If race isn’t important to you or your identity, it’s more likely that you may engage in interracial play but not race play. But for those of us who believe race is an important component of our identity, and who wish to incorporate that aspect of identity in a BDSM scene that involves power exchange, engaging in play about race can be profound and profoundly personal.
From what I’ve read online, many POC groups are opposed to even the discussion of race play. Identifying and discussing cultural and racial differences has historically been done to justify or excuse inequalities. But acknowledging our history and our differences is not racist. And eroticizing those differences in a playful, consensual way does not make us racist.
Of course, this form of edge play has a double edge. When you are playing with concepts around racism, one of the things you may discover about yourself or your partner is genuine racist thought or feeling, not before known or explored.
And folks who have experienced racism directly or even indirectly have a right and responsibility to protect themselves. When we are in touch with our own humanity, we can feel genuine pain when role playing the loss of human dignity. For a black person, the "N" word in a scene can be empowering, or humiliating, or self-deprecating. And only they will know how they feel about it once it’s been used.
One submissive on the Fetlife website shared that her partner makes her call him the "N" word so he will beat her and force her to call him "Massa." This is how they deal with racism issues, and it’s fun and playful to them both.
Another person on that site questioned whether the humiliation of race play has the same effect on white folks-being called a "cracker," for instance, doesn’t have the same emotional punch for most Caucasians as the "N" word has for African Americans. Indeed, he challenged that it’s easier to hurt a white person by calling them on their racism than by returning racist jibes. (I admit that I hadn’t thought about that much, but I do think he’s probably onto something there!)
And although it’s less likely that folks who engage in race play are racist (true racists most likely wouldn’t want to engage in intimate acts), there are no doubt some folks out there who would exploit this kind of play, to take advantage of this emotional and physical vulnerability, to lash out in a more real and devastating way to people whose differences they resent and to whom they feel superior.
So perhaps it’s reasonable that raising the subject within an erotic context puts many people on edge.
And while I can understand that reaction, I am concerned that silence around race play prevents healthy dialogue (much the way I’m concerned that all-or-nothing proponents of condom use and the banning of bareback porn may prevent healthy discussion about other alternatives to safe sex that could prevent the transmission of HIV).
Race play is just another mechanism by which we can express power and get into a mind space of dominance or submission. I find it fascinating that in some kink communities, it’s okay for a black man to be called a slave by his white lover... but if this same, loving life partner were to call him the "N" word in a scene that was witnessed by others, he would be shunned (probably by both whites and blacks). It’s just not "right" to use the "N" word.
For those into race play, however, context is everything. Folks into race play might absolutely believe in using the "N" word in a play scene... and NEVER, EVER outside of that context. By delineating it for erotic exploration and by subverting its social power, they affect the word’s effect.
Used in a non-play or social setting, the word has different and darker meaning. And different intent.
So, you might ask, is it the word or the message that the word conveys that we’re responding to-are we really giving that much power to a word, or are we responding to the messages that are implied by it? And ultimately does the person who says it change the message that the word conveys?
Let’s break it down to be a little more clear.
If you witnessed a black dom top working over a white man, and the white man pleaded with the top to fuck him harder with that big black dick, would you object to the recognition of race? If the top played with racial stereotypes and referred to the bottom’s "tiny white dick" would you respond in the same way?
Does it feel safer emotionally to refer to the race of body parts, rather than referring to race of the actual whole person?
If a black top slapped his cock across the face of a submissive of any race other than his own and called the submissive a "N**** loving cock whore," would you find that hot and a turn-on, or would you dismiss him as a self-loathing black man? Or both?
For some of us, race play is definitely best done behind closed doors. That are locked. And sound proofed.
And to some degree, I understand that position and support it. Kink play should be consensual; if race play is going to be involved, witnesses should be warned in advance so they can consent to joining or witnessing, or remove themselves before encountering a scene for which they are not emotionally prepared.
Of course, we cannot always prepare for what others may experience.
A person at a play party who stumbles onto a white-on-black bondage scene may interpret what they’re seeing as a race play scene, when it’s participants do not. Intention and energy exchange, negotiations beforehand, are not always obvious to the onlooker. Likewise, it’s not as obvious to the onlooker how race play may provide opportunity (indeed, even empowerment) to some to deal with issues of race and to push themselves outside of the comfort zone that polite discussion allows.
As a culture we tend to associate and judge people for their acts; if we consider them to do bad things, they are bad people. And so, if we deem racism to be an act of social evil, there is a tendency to view those who engage in race play as villainous.
We are doing them, and ourselves, no good is making this quick judgment.
I would posit that race play is like other forms of power exchange. It is a mechanism, a tool, which we may elect to use to explore and connect. A responsible race player is no more likely to draw on his resources and tools (like racial slurs) to inflict humiliation and pain on other races outside of a scene than is a rope bondage fetishist likely to randomly attack strangers with shabari knots or a pie fetishist likely to smear cream pies in the faces of unwilling victims.
We all have limits. Just as we want others to respect our limits, we should support others-even if their limits go beyond our own, and their arsenal of tools in excess of our own comfort zone.
To these brave folks, I offer my support and appreciation for your bravery. Your journey is your own, but your struggle belongs to all of us.
Because ultimately we provide the context for race. We as a society give race/culture/religion its power; and we are the ones who make the "N" word a word so seemingly ugly and so seemingly powerful that I cannot be easily said out loud... or even written.