Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wooodhull Sexual Freedom Summit 2015

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)

Victoria Woodhull was an American adventuress, stock trader, birth control and free love advocate, journalist and suffragette.  Although many are imagining that Hillary Clinton will be our country’s first female candidate for President of the United States, that distinction already belongs to Woodhull, who ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872.  She obtained no electoral votes.

Ricci Joy Levy, Woodfull Foundation Executive Director

The Woodhull Sexual Freedom alliance was founded in 2003.  Although the Alliance bears no direct connection to Victoria, it does share many of her goals. It has advocated against government repression of sexuality since its foundation.  Since 2009, it has hosted the Sexual Freedom Summit which includes training activities, a ceremony conferring the Vicki Awards for sexual freedom advocacy, and creates community for self-styled sex radicals.  Since its inception it has been ably led by its executive director Ricci Joy Levy.

I chose to attend not because my main theme is sexual freedom, nor because I am self-identified as a ‘sex radical.’  Those are perfectly fine reasons, but the purpose of this blog is improved psychotherapy for kinky and polyamorous clients.  Woodhull is especially prominent in advocating for poly folk, and given the degree of social stigma that attends variant sexual behavior of all kinds, it is simply not possible to promote improvements in the social justice of how we deliver sexual health without some attention to curbing the zeal of government bodies for excessive sexual regulation.  As will be seen in this review, some systems are so ignorant of the needs of sexual minorities, that it is radical just to call for specific information about them to be included in the social conversation.

This year’s Summit was held in Alexandria Virginia, August 13-16.  Your intrepid reporter and his long suffering spouse drove 750 miles in a van with broken AC to attend.  Reportage on those sessions which are relevant to The Elephants purpose will be presented.  Much other activity went on that I will not cover, including an excellent Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) by Patti Britton and Robert Dunlap, and an entire aging consortium from Widener University led by Jane Friedman, and a great session on legal issues in adult entertainment by Lawrence Walters and Luke Lirot.

Harmony, Rebecca and Kait presenting #SFS15.  Photo by Louis Shackelton
Sex Dating, Kink and the ‘C’ Word was presented by Harmony Eichsteadt, Kait Scalisi, and Rebeca Hiles

The ‘C’ word in this presentation was cancer, and this is the first session I have ever attended in which the problems associated with simultaneously being kinky and a cancer survivor were discussed.  From the outset, the presenters made clear that you are a cancer survivor from the moment of diagnosis, not the usual five-year period often used to calculate treatment effectiveness.  Travails presented fell into two main groups:  trouble getting your kink taken seriously by the medical profession, and trouble getting non-professionals to understand what your cancer does and doesn’t mean to potential partners and communities.
Barriers to better treatment for younger and kinky folk included:  the relative paucity of research studies done on teen and young adult cancer patients mean that sexuality and dating implications received little research.  Several stories were told of being unable to get sex discussed with specialists for types of cancer that did not directly impact the reproductive system.  Breast, prostate and uterine cancer specialists may be more open to sex discussion, but do not expect that to include kink.  That means kinky cancer survivors do have to swallow their fears of ignorance and judgment and press for information from potentially uninformed and bewildered professionals.  Treatments for non-reproductive cancer types commonly have hormonal and desire implications.  Some forms of chemo make sex dangerous for partners, and the sexual side effects of some medicines prescribed to deal with treatment side effects are unstudied for their sexual consequences.  Older and younger research subjects are often disinclined to volunteer such information, and doctors don’t ask.
While it is typical of many patients, kinky or not, to feel that sex is not the first thing on their minds or to feel too sick to bring it up at some points in their treatment, kinky folk are inclined to prioritize sex highly, and may not fall into that common pattern of avoidance.  The assumption that cancer ends sexual feeling is not always correct and serves as a barrier to discussion.  Specialists are not only undertrained to discuss sex and cancer, but are often compensated and evaluated for other things and lack time for an uncomfortable discussion they may feel ill-informed to conduct.

While undergoing treatment, survivors are just not expected to be experiencing sex desire or dating by the medical community, or the dating public.  Some reported rejection because of their diagnosis, although others found dating partners to be caring and sensitive.  All struggled somewhat against the medicalization of their identities, where being in treatment or in recovery reframed who others thought they are.  Often assumptions about their delicacy were hard to manage.  Try convincing a dominant play partner you do not know well that you are not ‘too fragile’ for your preferred form of sex.

There is a relative paucity of sex information that is specific to kink and cancer.  This is unfortunate in that, if only 2% of the U S population is into some form of kink, half of these can be expected to get cancer, leaving 3 million people without relevant resources.  The presenters run a relatively inactive site on Fetlife, apparently just posting it doesn’t mean people will come.  They reported most success at setting up their own informal support groups within their local kink communities.  Kink Aware Professionals is a resource for primary care physicians, but there are few oncology specialists on it.
Whether dealing with doctors or acquaintances, the group agreed that survivors need to be very assertive and take the initiative in dealing with their cancer issues.  Sadly, the expectation is that even specialists will not have gotten training on this.  The best say, ‘I don’t know, and I’ll look into it.’  Then they actually follow through and get back to you.

Dei, Ramien, and Sir Guy presenting #SFS15.  Photo by Louis Shackelton

Black Lives Matter in Porn, Kink and Leather -- Black Males, Law Enforcement and Sexual Expression presented by Dei Wise, Sir Guy DeBrownesville, and Ramien Pierre
This panel featured three black dominants who had each been in the scene for 20 years or more. One, Ramien, had won the prestigious International Mister Leather title in 2014.  Dei has won awards from AVN for his work in the porn industry.  Sir Guy was an early member of the Til Eulenspiegel Society, the very first above ground kink social group.   As such, they had been thoughtful and articulate participants in BDSM for a long time before volunteering to present at #SFS15.  Sir Guy had been a NYPD officer for 8 years, and prior racist experiences and a strong sense of what he desired attenuated the experience of isolation in his early years of joining the kink community when there were few other black members.   He did not say, but I also suspect that even when there are other people who are racially similar, some community is formed more around complimentary sexual interest than race.  His enthusiasm for uniform play was already a minority interest in the community, and overcoming isolation was already a frequent experience for him.

Important learning for me was the reflection that white people with fetishes for sex with black partners are an element of community life, but that they represented more of an obstacle that an opportunity for the panelists.  “Not everyone who wants to have sex with you likes blacks very much!’  All three panelists took pains to avoid play with people who they felt objectified them, and they regarded the right play as coming from people who were deeply interested in and accepting of their inner worlds.  Partly, this was an element of risk management.  No one wanted to be outed or harmed by insensitive partners even from the positions of power that dominance afforded.  But play is about emotional connection for the panelists.  Not everyone is ready for that and sometimes race is one of the barriers.

Dei, who had transitioned from submissive to dominant early in his career, was sometimes turned on by risky race play.  “Supreme Court Justices receive a less thorough vetting than my play partners.”  He went on to describe an extreme race play event in which he had viewed that involved a simulated lynching.   All of which left me examining my own values about race and edge play.  I am not alone in this.  Members of the community also have their reluctance.  A Black woman in the audience complained that the onlookers at the lynching constituted the wimpiest lynch mob on record.  None would say the ‘N’ word, which surely would not have been absent from a real lynching.  In order to make it more real for the ‘victim’ she had berated the crowd and exhorted them to be meaner!

It is hard not to imagine that some activities in BDSM constitute attempts at psychological mastery through ‘play’ of powerful, even traumatic social conditions in the larger society.  Uniforms take their meaning from a social context provided by the parent culture.  Racial lynching is an historical fact, although it is unlikely that Dei was old enough to be present at a real one.  Racial prejudice is grist for the mastery mill in American society.  Perhaps one should be uncomfortable with the social conditions that breed race play, even if one has long ago abandoned the myth that we are a colorblind society. 

These uncomfortable realities effect everyone, Blacks and Caucasians, privileged and disadvantaged alike, but they also reflect the conditions in which people pursue their kinks.  If we are sometimes uncomfortable about those kinks, it is always worth remembering they begin from larger social discomforts, and that lacking the same defenses and adaptations that kinky folk employ, we are much more uncomfortable and less excited than they are.  Our neutrality is not always healthier and not always an advantage.

The Family Matters Project:  John D,Emilio, Petter Goselin, Andy Izevon, Nancy Polikoff, Monica Raye Simpson and Ricci J Levy

The conference closed with a presentation on Woodhull’s major initiative; the Family Matters Project.  Superficially, this is about confronting the fact that heteronormative cis-gendered, monogamous family as the dominant ideal family structure in American society.  In fact, the panel’s criticism is more radical, more in the spirit of Victoria Woodhull, and much deeper than that.

The session began with the criticism of Antony Scalia’s conservative reasoning for supporting the extension of marriage rights to gay and lesbian monogamists.  This constitutes privileging of the already privileged; an invitation for gays to embrace a monogamous model that discriminates against those neediest of governmental support.  Even the relatively well-educated poly community is not the most needy cadre of government support.  A more radical approach would abandon sex shaming and economic discrimination against divorced, single, and out of wedlock family styles that affect far more people than polyamory.  These differentially impact the poor and people of color and the family styles they adopt to handle economic hardship and social discrimination.

Some speakers outlined the legal basis for just how vague and discriminatory the privileging of family really is.  “It would probably be better if the definition of family wasn’t left to lawyers!” typified the criticism.  For example, some housing laws allude to family but have great trouble defining it.  It is clear that the audience’s preferred methodology, that definitions of family come from the individual heart, was deeply unrealistic about how any such redefinition might be implemented.  After all, the current definitions, lawyerly as they may be, proceeded from heartfelt political will of opposing moralists. The most radical presenters called for abolition of the family as the basis for government benefits for the needy.  The clear solution of the presenters was that government benefits to the needy needed to de-privilege sex shaming and traditional family structure.  Fairer benefits cannot be accomplished by making traditional marriage a protected class.

The Family Matters Panel was able to articulate the ultimate goal of the project:  a de-privileging of traditional family status as the gateway for providing government services.  This would need to go beyond legitimating polyamory or other non-cisgendered, non-hetero-normative family styles.  It would need to end sexual shaming of people’s reproductive, living, and sexual relationships.

Achievement of this goal would have profound impacts on who was responsible for children and their care, who could legally live together in a dwelling, who could take medical responsibility for others, and how child custody was viewed.  Ultimately, it would support genuine equality of widely differing living arrangements.

As to how such a radical change was to be implemented, the panel was at the very earliest stages of any implementation plan.  John D’Emllio, one of this year’s Vicki Award winners, closed with the cogent quote that as gratifying as this goal was, the most radical criticism was a mere exercise in philosophy without a plan for implementation.  Ricci Joy Levy’s plan is clearly to recruit some of the great minds that presented in this session as the backbone of a working group to define what steps towards this goal might look like.

2015 Russell J Stambaugh, Ann Arbor, MI, All Rights Reserved

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