Tuesday, 24 February 2009

On Not Asking Why

This began as a comment I posted at Nine Deuce's. I've noticed that several kinky people there are agreeing with the idea that "examination" of the sort proposed over there is wise.

I don't want to tell people not to do something if they find it useful, but I also have to say that I have a problem with that.

McStar said "It’s quite fair, and potentially very interesting, to question why people desire certain acts, and in what way their desire is influenced by patriarchy."

I responded:

I don’t think so, McStar: I think patriarchy also affects what we ask “why” about.

We’ve already been through the social period where homosexual desire needed a “why.” Because the question was asked, and seen as relevant, answers arose. Bad answers, answers that suggested that something had gone twisted and faulty in the development of GLBT people: domineering mothers, absent fathers, women being allowed to do rough and tumble things, or even to read and study.

The assumption that queerness must be socially constructed, could not be innate, led to these “answers” being found.

I don’t ask why people desire BDSM because I see the same pattern of assumptions here. We start from “normal human desire doesn’t look like that, or at least wouldn’t if the world weren’t so fucked up” and then from there the explanations we look for inherently make reference to the desire we’re asserting as “natural” (or at least as “evident when women are Free.”)

The question itself, as it gets asked in these sorts of discussion, has its answer — and its condemnation — inherent in it.

I do not ask, because it would be like asking “What happened to make some people left-handed?”

I do think it's worthwhile to think before you do something you're uneasy about, whether because it makes you uncomfortable or because you feel it goes against your principles. And I don't think it's a good idea for kinky women who really do feel that their kink and their feminism conflict to try it. I agree that people often do, and often should, think about things they're unsure about before doing them.

However, I staunchly maintain that "How did the patriarchy make you kinky?" is a loaded question. If you take it seriously as a question, you can't answer it with anything but "This desire of mine is linked to patriarchy because _____."

And I don't think such leading questions are likely to lead to anything useful. I'm sure they often lead to unproductive guilt, but how they lead to good feminism or thoughtful BDSM I don't see.

The question we should be asking, "Why are people kinky?", doesn't have enough patriarchy in it for those who've already decided "patriarchy" has to be somewhere in the answer.

But of course, if patriarchy really is in the answer somewhere, surely we'd find it anyway.

So why does it have to go in the question? What do people fear so much that they hang with deathgrips on to leading questions?

(Actually, "Why are people kinky?" is bad too, for the same reason "Why are people gay?" is bad. It presumes that because most people are not kinky/not gay, this makes them a strange deviation that needs explaining away. Really being fair would mean asking "Why is it that some people are kinky and others are not? Why do the numbers break down as they do?")

26 comments:

rooroo said...

"The question we should be asking, "Why are people kinky?", doesn't have enough patriarchy in it for those who've already decided "patriarchy" has to be somewhere in the answer.
"

Nail, hit, head.

Trinity said...

Thanks, RooRoo.

I mean, if asking that helps some kinky people figure out who they are or what's acceptable to them to do, that can't be bad...

...but for me that whole rabbit-hole wasn't constructive, and it ultimately led to me going "Whoa, wait. It's not that I've got some failure of imagination here that makes me never quite feel I've examined enough. It's that this is the wrong question and I'm engaged in an intellectual wankfest that will never end. Oops."

Trinity said...

And the thing is: if these people are really open to listening, why is it so frightening to them to even consider the possibility that their questions are a blind alley?

Alexandra Erin said...

Anybody who thinks they can figure out why I'm sexually attracted to the things I am isn't a feminist, they are an optimist. :)

rooroo said...

And the thing is: if these people are really open to listening, why is it so frightening to them to even consider the possibility that their questions are a blind alley?


They're not the ones on trial. They're the ones playing the part of judge, jury and executioner, so to even question flaws in their methodology is tantamount to saying the system is being unfair towards some groups and isn't working... It's up to the accused to come up with the right answers - the questions in themselves are not wrong, never wrong.

Or it could just be that you missed the memo of the rules to play, "I am a bigger and better feminist THAN YOU!!!" Where one's feelings towards BDSM acts as the proverbial tape measure.

directionlessbones said...

Out of interest, would you be more well-disposed to questioning that did try to include everything in its ambit - that asked, how have sexual desire and the desire for power become/remained separated for some people, while becoming/remaining linked for others, in various different ways?

Analogously, why are so many people straight? From many perspectives this is an open and rather baffling question - e.g. Freudian theories often talk about our psyches as starting out 'polymorphous' and open to anything, so where does the fixity and restriction appear? That of coruse is just another hypothesis, I'm just saying the question isn't at all obviously answered.

What bugs me about the way questions are often addressed is that that, as you say, the 'natural' starting point, which should be considered more obscure and mysterious and hard to ascertain than anything else, is assumed as known.

Ireen said...

I don't understand what asking why serves at all. I mean, even if I could find out, what made me kinky, whether it's my genes or it's the patriarchy or a childhood trauma or what not - so what? It's not going to magically disappear once I've found the answer. I just am, full stop.

So I'd rather spend my energy on sorting out how to do kink in a manner that adds to the well-being of everyone involved. But that of course means that I have some sort of free will when it gets to my sexuality, which, to some people, seems unthinkable.

Trinity said...

"Out of interest, would you be more well-disposed to questioning that did try to include everything in its ambit - that asked, how have sexual desire and the desire for power become/remained separated for some people, while becoming/remaining linked for others, in various different ways?"

No.

I think asking other people "why don't you like power in your sex?" yields as little of use as asking me why I do.

Usually the response is "I don't know; why would you do something else?" even if the person isn't hostile or confused by the question. I'd rather have a real conversation.

"Analogously, why are so many people straight? From many perspectives this is an open and rather baffling question - e.g. Freudian theories often talk about our psyches as starting out 'polymorphous' and open to anything, so where does the fixity and restriction appear? That of coruse is just another hypothesis, I'm just saying the question isn't at all obviously answered."

True. :)

But I don't know if getting an answer is realistic... because if we assume that people are hetero rather than pan because of culture, we immediately hit two problems:

1) Given that bisexuality/pansexuality in women seems to be more socially accepted, we'd be looking for the origin of the feeling, in men, that they must separate themselves from their desire for other men. But it's not clear to me that we could find this. It may be that patriarchy is why -- in order to have clear groups with one wielding sexual control over another, the groups must be clearly marked.

But that gets us back to "why is there a patriarchy?" and as for THAT I have no idea, and I'm willing to bet none of us do. I've heard what to me is crappy supposition about male body strength, but I really don't see how that clearly leads to a social order.

2) Presuming that everyone does begin as pansexual is just another example of othering. If we build into the theory that heterosexuality is something unnatural because "no one would limit themselves", we're doing the same thing others do -- taking our own orientation, or whichever one we "like," and setting the others up as a failure to conform.

Fuck that.

SnowdropExplodes said...

First up, I agree that asking why isn't helpful. Trin's comment captures this perfectly:

I think asking other people "why don't you like power in your sex?" yields as little of use as asking me why I do.

Usually the response is "I don't know; why would you do something else?" even if the person isn't hostile or confused by the question. I'd rather have a real conversation.


I don't need to understand how or why it works for sex to be without power-exchange, I just accept that, hey, it does! And it does for quite a lot of people, too. I guess it's like the thing about standard aerodynamics not being able to explain how a bumblebee flies or something (or maybe, if you've got someone who ONLY knows about helicopters, and you show hir a jumbo jet, zie might very well argue, "but your blades don't move, how can it possibly fly!?" - and equally, if you've got someone who ONLY understands aeroplanes, then show hir a helicopter and zie might say, "but the wings are too small, how can it possibly fly?"

But for me to take a ride on a jumbo jet, I don't need to understand any form of aerodynamics - I can just accept that somehow this heavier-than-air engine is in fact not falling but flying.

***

Looking at the question "why?" it seems to me that there are a number of different possibilities for the answer:

a) There is no answer possible

b) There is an answer, but it is hidden and cannot be found (philosophically, (a) probably resolves to this, but let's not bother with that depth of philosophy!)

c) There is an answer, but knowing the answer won't help us change anything

d) There is an answer, and knowing the answer will help us change something for the better.

in a) b) and c) the question is pointless. Only in situation d) can asking "why" have any purpose. The question implies "fixing" us.

It's interesting to note that the question itself can be harmful: by pathologising the state, it makes it into a problem when it wasn't really one in the first place. Just as Freudian psychotherapy, when tested against a control group, actually proved to have less success than just coping on one's own for many issues (IIRC that's a statistic referenced by Shulamith Firestone, finding a healthy space from "examining" can be harder than if you just left it alone.

I am reminded of Douglas Adams' "3 stages of society": "Survival, Inquiry, Sophistication" - characterised by the questions, "How, Why, Where?" "As in 'How can we eat?', 'Why do we eat?' and 'Where shall we have lunch?'"

Applying this to kink, we have "How can we play safely?", "Why are we kinky?" and "Where would you like to be spanked/touched/tied up?"

Hmm, that's quite a rambly comment, apologies!

Trinity said...

"
c) There is an answer, but knowing the answer won't help us change anything

d) There is an answer, and knowing the answer will help us change something for the better.

in a) b) and c) the question is pointless. Only in situation d) can asking "why" have any purpose. The question implies "fixing" us."

SD: Actually, I don't think your c) is pointless.

I think it could be interesting to know why people are the way they are, in the same way that I think it's interesting to know that genetics explains how it is that there are fewer blue-eyed people than brown-eyed ones in populations that include both.

I wouldn't be against "locating the kink gene" or "discovering the brain pattern that keys to power" or "finding out that people from this type of home environment are more likely to be turned on by power" IF it were considered interesting for the same reasons knowing the origins of eye color or handedness are interesting.

It's the presumption that this information is for and about more than mapping human diversity that's the problem. If "X makes people kinky" were a random factoid in line with "Y makes people blue-eyed" it would... well, it would be a piece of trivia, not grounds for anti-kink sentiment or theory.

Which wouldn't bother me.

pharaoh-katt said...

Ireen:

Yes, that, exactly! Knowing the origins of something is not going to change the enjoyment, and why should it?
You could swap "kinky" for any number of activities; why do I like reading? Why do I hate sports? Knowing the answer isn't going to suddenly make you an illiterate sport-junky.

I just don't see the point anymore.
(Apologies if this is a double post)

Alcibiades said...

Since I would never miss an opportunity to pimp my blog, I'll link to a place where I've written about the importance of origins before:

http://physicalsophistry.blogspot.com/2008/06/marriage-and-bdsm.html

Short summary: my friends are getting married; according to many of my atheistic friends, the origin of this is only a meaningless struggle for reproduction and survival. While evolution may be the efficient cause of my friend's behavior, it does not affect its meaning in the slightest.

McStar said...

Wow, it feels like I had to leave the party just as I was getting involved, and now I've missed out on all the interesting stuff ;) I'll see if I can catch up...

I think the real problem with the whole 'question/examine your desires' trope is that it's suggested for the wrong reasons, done by the wrong people and done in the wrong ways. I completely agree that our society shapes the sorts of questions we ask and the ways in which we ask them. The whole thing is very reminiscent of all those appalling pop-psychology 'scientific studies' on male/female behaviour which SOMEHOW always seem to produce results that support the gender-biases of the scientists and their culture-at-large.

In an ideal world, we would be able to wonder where aspects of our sexualities might have 'come from' without being expected to reach certain conclusions, or having our personal conclusions disregarded (like when some kinky types say that we regard kinkiness as a natural/inborn aspect of our personality), or feeling uncomfortably aligned with bigots. Take for example the question of whether sexual orientation (speaking purely in terms of which gender/s a person is attracted to) can be discovered to be caused by nature or the family or society as a whole or whatever combination of factors. That could theoretically be a fascinating line of enquiry into the workings of human sexuality which could teach us a huge amount about how our minds and personalities are formed. What it usually is in actuality is various groups of people picking the position that fits best with their own personal prejudices, finding or creating supposedly unbiased research to back up that position, and then trying to yell their position louder than everyone else. And sadly the loudest yellers are often the homophobes.

In a mature and unbigoted society, it wouldn't work that way - we would be able to think and talk about sexualities and potential effects of society/nurture/nature on sexualities without our own stupidity and bigotry getting in the way. If everyone worked a bit harder at disregarding their own stupidities and biases, maybe these discussions would be productive and interesting. Maybe we'd come up with some new and fascinating hypotheses about society and sexuality. Sadly, the whole idea of 'questioning your desires' has been hijacked by bigots and fuckwits like the internet radical feminist gang. Leaving other (hopefully) more open-minded people thinking but hang on... why can't we think about why people are kinky without all this ignorance and these preconceived notions of what kinkiness equals? why can't we think about why people are kinky because we personally find it interesting? why is a random internet person demanding to know why we're kinky and then informing us that whatever we may personally think, it's actually because the patriarchy is being evil in our heads? *flail*

Trinity said...

McStar:

Yeah, I agree with you. I don't think the mere fact of asking is a problem. I just don't think it's fair when it's being asked to further a political cause or agenda.

If it were "this is interesting, like the reasons for different eye colors is interesting" then fine. When the unspoken other half of the question is "Precisely how/why do you contribute to the oppression of women?" then no, Not Fine.

deardelilah said...

I'm getting to this party rather late - I just stumbled across this post today from Calico's blog.

I want to say first off that I think you're dead on here. I wonder, though, what you think of the value of examining kinks that come off as more problematic, especially when they are presented as the norm for a particular type of kinky sexuality. I'm thinking of Bitchy Jones and her writing about "forced feminization," and how men getting off on the supposed degradation of being dressed like a woman is, well, kinda messed up. Or nonconsent/rape fantasies, with which I believe many women struggle. I certainly agree that the question "why are you kinky," with its inevitable subtext of "what is wrong with you," is a pointless exercise; that what turns us on turns us on, and there's no real definable why about it. But is it not worth looking more deeply at urges that point to something that might, indeed, be wrong with society, if not with ourselves? That is: I would never blame kinky people for contributing to the oppression of women. But in what ways might the oppression of women be contributing to our kinks? (And does it matter? Probably not, if I can guess at your answer.)


Thanks for the great post.

Trinity said...

deardelilah,

As far as forced feminization goes... well, on the one hand, I do sometimes feel that people who go overboard with "dominant goddesses overflow with sacred femininity and my femininity just makes me a loserpigmale" should maybe check themselves...

...but on the other and far stronger hand, I'm really, really bugged when people suggest that my kink for feminine men is something that needs Especial Examination, whether on the part of me or the people who turn my head, ESPECIALLY when femininity in men is already devalued terribly and it seems the people who want me and mine to examine it never examine that.

(And I'll stop there. I've said plenty about how Bitchy's reiterations that Real Live Dom Women want a Manly Man(tm) Who Just Happens To Submit is vaguely sexist to my mind, and how her idea that Real Dominant Females Are Feminine, and Masculine Ones Are Buying The "Femdom Fantasy" That Pegging Makes Them Come is uh... not reflective of my experience before, so uh... yeah.)

So you might want to ask that one of somebody else. :)

deardelilah said...

Wow - okay, now that I went a looked at the original post, you can ignore my comment if you like! With that provenance, I am now totally on-board with where the question was coming from!

Trinity said...

deardelilah,

Sorry for jumping on you like that.

And um... what were you saying you misunderstood?

I'm not sure if you've changed your mind totally here, but I don't really know that I think examining how the oppression of women shapes our kinks is productive. Or, I guess, I don't really know what it means.

Is it, like, "would you like whatever were coded as submissive in whatever culture you grew up in, and therefore if you grew up in Masculinity Is For Subs Land you'd be femme and like masculine guys?"

Because the answer to that might be yes, but... then again, I do think that my gender stuff is not just kink but also identity, so I'm not sure I'd be valence-flipped there either.

But even if I knew I would, why exactly would this be important to be aware of, rather than a factoid? In some people's case it might lead them to go, "oh, I see how this could be offensive to women, so I'll do $relatedthingy instead."

But if the person is thoughtful and reflective enough to do $relatedthingy, my personal feeling (and sure, I know some disagree, just saying) that they're probably the sort that I wouldn't be terribly bothered (though I might be squicked) by them doing $thingy, because I'd know they wouldn't mean it.

Kamela said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
deardelilah said...

No problem with jumping on me; while I find Bitchy amusing and agree with some of her stuff in a general sense, I certainly find many of her opinions deeply problematic as well. (Yes, I come from wearing a strap-on. Whew, nelly.)

What happened here is that I'm pretty new to the sex blogosphere, and I hadn't been aware that there were such things as these radical feminists who are out there hating on us with blanket pronouncements about submissive women's abuse histories and our clear brainwashedness by Teh Patriarchy and its evil evil proponents, Male Dominants (free will and the expression of desire and true sexuality in whatever form it appears as a radical feminist act be damned!).

Before clicking over to the comment thread you were referring to in your post, I thought it was a kind of cool idea to examine the provenance of our kinks, and in particular to more deeply example some of the more problematic-seeming ones.

A glance through that minefield quickly disabused me of that notion. You, Trinity, are a braver woman than I.

While I'm sure I'll continue analyzing stuff to death - not necessarily for feminist problematization but because I'm a sick fuck who finds such activities fun, I don't think I'll be needing to peer down that particular rabbit hole again.

Keep up the good work. Linking to you in my next post. :)

Trinity said...

"No problem with jumping on me; while I find Bitchy amusing and agree with some of her stuff in a general sense, I certainly find many of her opinions deeply problematic as well. (Yes, I come from wearing a strap-on. Whew, nelly.)"

I used to like her a lot too. She's a good writer, and I do think her critiques of "femdom" as an expectation of how women tops should all behave is usually right on. I just get bothered by the way everyone seems to link to her as if she's got the answers, while I very rarely see anyone note that the heteronormativity and gender roles she embraces need not be universal to avoid "fake femdom."

"Before clicking over to the comment thread you were referring to in your post, I thought it was a kind of cool idea to examine the provenance of our kinks, and in particular to more deeply example some of the more problematic-seeming ones."

*nod* I don't think that's wrong. I just think that if we do that, we need to do it from a perspective that isn't condemning or crazy-making, and I don't think the usual radfem perspective fits that bill.

I also think that even when we do it with the best of intentions, we often end up ranking kinks in a way I'm increasingly uncomfortable with. I see a lot of kinky people in these discussions go "Kink is fine, it's just fantasy... oh, wait, those race play people? That's just white people doing harm!" and it stops there, rather than people (usually white women) reading and thinking critically about what people of color who participate actually have to say about what they're doing and what they think. (I was especially impressed with the "I'm assumed to do race play anyway any time I'm with a white top. Why don't people consider that?" in there.)

And what I think that creates is a kind of hierarchy, where some kinks are simply taken as givens and other kinks are "we're nothing like THOSE people." And I worry about us doing this, even as I also acknowledge that yes, some kinds of play really are more controversial than others. I worry that if we muse by ourselves, rather than acknowledging the actual voices of people who do whatever, we're doing the same thing as "but don't you see that this thing scares me, therefore I interpret what you do as being about it, and anyone who consents to do it with you is flummoxed?"

deardelilah said...

And what I think that creates is a kind of hierarchy, where some kinks are simply taken as givens and other kinks are "we're nothing like THOSE people."This, OMG this.

The joke in my particular kink community is "your kink is not okay!" It usually points to some not-actually-kinky thing that someone's doing and is played entirely for laughs. But of course its provenance is this very idea: that some people's kinks are more equal than others.

I have a lot of people approach me as a pro domme who want to do things that I find personally gross (like shit play) or cannot do because of personal discomfort (like race play), but I at least try to treat these people and their desires with respect, and send them along to people who might be able to help them.

But actually believing that someone's kink, when done consensually, is out and out "wrong," or even worse, deciding that all such behavior is politically dangerous and therefore should not be done at all, desire be damned? *breathes* You are a braver person than I, going in there and actually trying to argue cogently about these things.

The ironic thing about this particular radical feminist bent is how paternalistic it is: "We're just trying to protect you from ourselves." Yack. It makes my skin crawl.

I. Hadathought said...

I think people who ask questions like that are taking an unwarranted shortcut--something like, "Well, we know patriarchy affects people" (true) "and we know patriarchy is based on a power dynamic" (also true) "and we know BDSM is based on a power dynamic" (true) "so patriarchy must be involved in BDSM somewhere" (wait, stop, back up a bit).

They're leaving out the step of showing that the power dynamic in BDSM bears any significant similarity or common traits to the one in patriarchy. (Possibly they assume that, as an overarching model embedded in our culture, patriarchy must have gotten its meathooks into most power dynamics that exist, but they have to prove that first, and define exactly what the "meathooks" are and how they got attached, etc.).

I have no problem believing that patriarchal assumptions have affected my thoughts about kinky things in some ways...but I seriously doubt it was the sole driving force responsible for their existence.

I also think patriarchy is everywhere, but I'd have to see solid scientific studies before I just assume it's any more "involved" with BDSM than it is in (say) cooking or photography or raising miniature horses.

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