by Malachi Grennell
Last week, Robin wrote a wonderful solo piece around the challenges and joys of sexuality and aging while I was away at a retreat for people engaged with the BDSM community. This week, while Robin is away at Metropolitan Community Church’s General Conference in Victoria, British Columbia, I get the opportunity to share some of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences from not one, but two different events that I had the opportunity to attend.
“BDSM” is an acronym that stands for “Bondage & Discipline, Domination & Submission, Sadism & Masochism.” BDSM is a more familiar term to most people, but I often tend to simply use “kink,” which describes the larger umbrella of alternate sexual lifestyles (of which BDSM is a part).
Like many different types of communities, the kink community is comprised of both private and public aspects: there are those who engage in kinky sex privately, but leave it “in the bedroom,” while others form networks, present and/or attend classes, go to public dungeon spaces, and attend large conferences and events.
I don’t want to turn this writing into a workshop-style piece, but I do think it’s important to give some context. I can imagine- and remember my own impressions before attending an event- that it might appear that a 5-day kink retreat would simply be a massive orgy, full of whips and chains and a lot of leather, where showing up is considered consent and people do whatever they want.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, except for the leather. There’s a decent amount of leather around, and it’s glorious.
The truth is, the 5-day retreat is held at a remote campground where they
take people’s privacy very seriously. The days are filled up with classes from educators across the country (and sometimes, from around the world) to teach things like rope bondage safety and flogging techniques and navigating non-monogamy (or, sometimes, navigating monogamy within the kink scene). The evenings are full of events where people can try something out if they haven’t experienced it (and want to), or sit and talk to other people, or even go swimming in the pool or have a dance party. The space is both clothing-optional and sex-positive, which just means that people can be as (un)dressed as they feel comfortable and are allowed to have sex in most places (with a few exceptions, such as places where food is served).
It’s not a massive orgy (although orgies do happen). It’s a community- a group of people who share a common interest- in this case, that happens to be an alternative sexual lifestyle. It’s almost guaranteed that every person will see something they like and hadn’t thought of, as well as see something that is an immediate turn-off. The mantra in the kink community is “Your Kink Is Not My Kink and That’s Ok.” It’s a diverse group of people ranging in age, experience, interests, skill levels, sexualities, identities, and backgrounds.
The truth is, whenever I start writing about kink, it always feels a little overwhelming because there are so many places I want to go. I want to talk about rape culture and what kink has taught me about consent. I want to write about intersectionality and the ways in which kink allows for important, powerful social analysis (and the ways in which the community sometimes falls short of those analysis). I want to write about my experience as a trans person navigating a clothing-optional space. I want to write about the ways in which I have learned to tackle difficult (and sometimes dark) desires in safe, healthy ways. I want to write about catharsis and about navigating trauma and dealing with frustration.
I want to write about everything, and I think that would take a book (or two).
A friend of mine is fond of saying, “We get the camp we need, not necessarily the camp we want.” And she’s right: every event has provided me with important lessons that I needed to learn, even if it’s not necessarily what I wanted to be learning…even if I thought I learned them last time. It’s also worth noting that we cannot get what we want unless we ask for it… two lessons that emerged from kink camp, but are not unfamiliar: I have been wrestling with these throughout my journey with Christian faith.
But these parallels exist. We know, so often, that God provides what we need- the lessons we need, the experiences we need, the people we need- although, at times, it doesn’t exactly match up with what we want (or think we want). Kink camp is much the same way. I spent much of this camp in a caretaking role, ensuring the people that I care about were safe, protected, able to be vulnerable, had a place to decompress. Caretaking is something I have a complicated relationship with, and it’s not necessarily how I wanted to spend my camp… but I do think it’s what I needed to do.
Also, please don’t get me wrong- I had a blast. I had fun, I did all sorts of things, and truly honored the vulnerability and difficulties that friends were going through, and felt humbled that they reached out to me.
I was also reminded that we cannot get what we want unless we ask for it… which not only reminds me prayer, but reminds me that we must participate in our own miracles. I have a difficult time asking for what I want sometimes, and yet I was reminded that I cannot get what I want if I am not willing to ask for it. The juxtaposition between having friends need care and finding their own voices for articulating what they want and need against my own hesitancy to not “be a burden” on others was a powerful experience to have… and has given me lots to think on as I continue to settle back in to daily, clothes-wearing life.
I mentioned that I had the opportunity to attend two events. The first was the planned, 5-day camping retreat. The second was an impromptu trip to a hotel conference where a friend was coordinating overnight security and asked me to come help out. The second event was significantly different from the first event (zoning laws impacted the amount of nudity that is allowed, as well as restricted specific types of sex allowed in public spaces), but I enjoyed the event immensely and was reminded how important it is that we give back to community.
People come to these events for a myriad of reasons, but often it is to find
support and comfort with like-minded people. Much like church, many of us are looking to find support and validation for who we are. Once we have integrated ourselves into that community, we then become a part of sustaining it.
I met many folks at the hotel conference for whom it was their first event, and they were overwhelmed with how accepted and comfortable they felt in that space. As a person who was there to ensure that everyone was safe and comfortable, as well as help make the event run smoothly, it reminded me that someone did this for me at my first event. When we reach a certain point of interaction within community, we become part of sustaining and supporting that community through whatever roles speak to us. Whether that’s a church or a kink event, it was a reminder that we are a part of shaping the communities of which we are a part.
It has been a full, exciting week and a half and I’m certainly still processing many of the individual experiences of both events. The big-picture resonance, however, is something that feels familiar. It’s about community and support. It’s about validation and confirmation. It’s about safety and reclaiming our identities. It is, in so many ways, about sanctuary.
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What do you think? What are some of your thoughts, feelings, assumptions, or discomforts with BDSM? How do you feel about the synthesis of kink and faith? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.