8 November 2009 12:12
Seattle, WA – A few months ago, International Mr. Leather founder and current president, Chuck Renslow, sent a message to IML Leather Market vendors and the members of our leather community. The letter announced a policy adopted by the Executive Committee of IML regarding the promotion or advocacy of barebacking – the practice of unprotected anal sex among men who have sex with men. This new policy specifically disallows entities that distribute and sell merchandise tending to promote or advocate barebacking from participation in the IML vendor market. Personally, I have myself questioned the level of acceptance bareback studios enjoy at leather community events. I have been troubled by the growing perception that barebacking (especially the marketing of unsafe sex with multiple, anonymous partners) is somehow an acceptable practice among responsible fetish/Sm players. Given our tribe’s long tradition of taking care of each other and teaching each other how to play more safely, I am amazed our response has not been stronger or come more quickly. But, I get ahead of myself…
As the rhetorical volleys continue to fly in reaction to IML’s decision and as some individuals attempt to polarize popular opinion regarding safer sex and the issue of barebacking, I would like to offer a more nuanced account of my own position on this subject. I must admit my perspective is heavily influenced by a frame of reference formed through my own journey as a leatherman, and each of you is entitled to your own opinion. Truth is, I couldn’t give a flying fuck less what you do in your fuckin’ world, but I’m pretty particular about what happens in mine. For me, being a leatherman is not about what you wear, it’s about character. I was introduced to leather, at least the military/Sm aspect of Leather, with three guiding principles: integrity, fidelity and service. From these follow a number of character traits that are essential to our community. Two of these traits, respect and responsibility, are chiefly relevant in my thinking.
First and foremost, let me state unequivocally that every individual has the right to formulate his or her own risk profile; i.e. the level of risk he is willing to accept in any given situation, scene or with a particular partner. I myself, for a period of time, was fluidly-bonded with one of my collared boys. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, and it isn’t my usual modus operandi. We were both tested for a full spectrum of blood-borne pathogens and were fully aware of the risks associated with our decision. We engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse together, we avoided risk behaviors with others and we were honest with each other about our activities. I respect each person’s right to decide for himself with his partners how they will engage in sexual activity, and hope that these decisions are responsible and informed.
I also hope we all remember to respect each other regardless of our stance on this particular issue, the decisions we have made in our past, and our current health status. If we cannot respect and treat one another with common civility, we simply marginalize ourselves, entrench the language of discord and fail to educate anyone that might be witnessing the exchange. If we demonize people for the decisions they have made in the past, we disenfranchise them from the dialogue, close them off to positive change and cheat ourselves from finding common ground. It is also important for me to ensure that my language and actions are accepting and inclusive to those with discordant sero- and health status. Several of my brothers (those in my leather family) are living with HIV, and two of them deal with the effects of Hepatitis C. Two of my own collared boys are HIV positive, and another had at one point been infected with a blood-born parasite known as Leishmaniasis that he picked up in the jungles of Guatemala years ago. Truth is I don’t think many of us get past adolescence without becoming damaged goods; we all, in some way, have made choices and suffered unfortunate consequences at some point in our lives. If we are ever to build the communities that truly feed our souls, they will be built on mutual, inclusive and supportive respect.
And let us not forget that my fellow performers in the adult industry and other sex workers deserve respect as well. I know from personal experience that many people are quick to dismiss the individuals that perform in adult films or otherwise work in the sex industry. Too often I hear the argument that bareback porn is just ‘fantasy’ from people who say they wouldn’t do it themselves, only to remind them that their fantasy is a reality for the performers on screen. Now, those performers may have consented, they may even have been fully informed of the risks at the time of the shoot, but as these images and messages of high-risk behavior become more pervasive, it further pressures performers and other sex workers into activities they may not be comfortable with risk-wise out of fear of lost income, status or self-worth. Regardless which side of the adult industry an individual performs or what choices an individual sex worker makes, each deserves the respect that comes from being recognized as an actual human being rather than an object or commodity.
So, as passions rise and discussion flares around this issue, I remind myself to respect other peoples’ risk-profiles and respect each individual regardless of his or her position on the issue, the decisions she has made, or his current health status; but at the same time, I need to remember the fact that my actions have consequence to those around me. This brings me to another trait at the foundation of my values.
I would like to believe that those of us who play on the edge understand responsibility. But that is no truer a statement than any other painted with such a broad stroke. I know that within the fetish/Sm community there are players who play responsibly and those who, frankly, don’t. In my own community of family and friends, however, responsibility is a recurring theme, not just in our play, but in our personal lives, and our approach to our interactions together and our sense of community service. These themes of respect and responsibility run so profoundly in my closest circle that I am comfortable making the following collective statements.
My family and friends know we have a responsibility to ourselves. Responsibility is a very personal thing. Perhaps that’s why, in moments of clarity, even when we don’t take responsibility, we still feel it. We are each responsible ultimately to ourselves for our actions and the consequences of those actions. We are first and foremost individually responsible for our own education, physical health and emotional security. While we are not expected to be perfect or to always make the best choice, we are expected to be consciously present and engaged in a positive way.
We also recognize we have a responsibility to our sexual partners. As BDSM practitioners we understand the power associated with the exchange we share with our play partners. We know that the dynamics behind dominance and submission and the application of intense stimulation or deprivation (and the sometimes cathartic results that occur) all come with very real physical and psychological risks. Mitigating these risks requires deep trust, open communication, mutual respect and shared responsibility. We play with the business end of a bull whip, a garrote around the neck, electricity, tears, blood and cum. Whether playing with a long-time play partner or a trick from the street, we owe it to ourselves and to those touched by our lives, to reduce those risks. Safer sex is just one aspect in a slew of techniques and skills we can use to heighten our experience with our play partners.
My brothers and sisters and our friends understand we have a responsibility to each other. We are connected to each other. We share each others’ lives. Just as there is the expectation of personal responsibility, there is help in our need, support in our success, compassion in our failure, and companionship in both our grief and our celebration. We are bound together by our common values and shared experiences. We are responsible to each other because we care about each other.
We are also aware of our responsibility as leaders, educators and activists to the broader community of individuals we touch through our actions. Whether we play in the scene or outside it, work in the spotlight or behind the scenes, we know that what we do affects the lives of others in a very real way. While we may not always be performing at our best, we strive to lead by example, educate when and where we can and be active in our own circle of friends. Even when I was fluidly-bonded with my boy, if we fucked at an open play-party it was always with protection because we knew that some twenty-something standing against the wall watching might not understand the nature of our relationship. And, finally, we’ve always policed our own.
Will any of what I think make an iota of difference in the behavior of anyone else? Honestly, I don’t know. Surely, the producers of bareback porn will continue to capture high risk behavior on screen. Consumers will continue to purchase these depictions. And some men who have sex with men will continue to have unprotected, anonymous anal sex – some aware of the risks and some not. The fact is people who want to engage in high risk behavior are free to do so, just as there are some BDSM players that use unsterilized sharps, leave their partners unattended in bondage or play with autoerotic asphyxiation all alone.
But responsible players and organizations that respect the risks inherent in these activities will continue to advocate safer play, teach better techniques and establish policies that prohibit blatantly dangerous activities in our shared spaces. We advocate clean and sterile technique to reduce the risk of opportunistic infections. We advise against leaving partners restrained alone to ensure they don’t die in those bonds. We caution our friends not to engage in solo breath control because it’s the leading cause of BDSM related deaths. We encourage the use of condoms for fucking and gloves for fisting to reduce the ravages of HIV, HEP-C, Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, some not even yet known to us. We ask our leaders to help us in these endeavors and we ask our guests to refrain from recruiting our brothers and sisters into high-risk behaviors in the spaces we create.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. I think it’s more about investing in the kind of community we want to create. I commend Chuck Renslow and IML for taking a stand against marketing high-risk behavior in the IML vendor market. I associate myself with organizations like the Chicago Hellfire Club and the San Francisco Men of Discipline that create spaces dedicated to the principles of mutual respect and responsible play. I applaud the efforts of the countless individuals throughout our community that continue to advocate for the health and safety of our brothers and sisters even as popular culture markets to the contrary. It may seem like a losing battle at times, but it’s not a war… it’s a dialog. It is a dialog about how we want to live our lives and share those lives with others.
I intend to live my life with respect and responsibility. I hope others in our community respect this and join in aspiring to these ideals, even as I respect whatever personal choices others might make in their private sex lives.
Note: The photos in this post, courtesy of Joe Oppedisano, feature Tony Buff and Derek da Silva. The blog entry itself is intended to be a contribution to a much greater dialog around this issue. Please feel free to continue the conversation, link to this post and even utilize excerpts on your own blog. Please credit or cite as appropriate.