Horizontal Violence and Othering

This past Sunday I was honored to be the 2017 Keynote speaker for International Ms Leather and International Ms Bootblack Contest.   It was well received and I figure I should share it with all of you.  This is about the BDSM world I live in and it’s also more than that.  Since many of you are part of or have people close to you in marginalized communities, you may recognize some of what I’m talking about.

Good Morning!  Ready for my Sunday Sermon?  Well ready or not, here it comes.

First, a little bit about me.  I have been part of the BDSM/Leather world since 1989(well, I’ve been kinky all my life and I’m 64 and discovered that there were organizations that celebrate the stuff I love in 1989).  I’ve been speaking at colleges and around the country since 1992.  A long fucking time.  In those years I’ve learned a lot and experienced a lot.  I helped create the Center for Sex Positive Culture, The Foundation for Sex Positive Culture and the Seattle Erotic Art Festival.  And now that I’m “retired” (quotes around retired) I’m traveling and speaking even more.  Oh, and something personal about me.  I had breast cancer in 2011 and because of some of the lasting effects of chemo brain, I have occasional aphasia and forgetfulness, which means I’ll be referring to my notes a bit more than normal.  And, regarding my cancer, it was the various sex positive communities I belong to that got me through all of it.  I love the various communities that are part of my world.

This has to be one of the hardest keynotes I’ve ever written.  I had planned to write about Consent, which is an ongoing theme and issue in our various communities and then a series of events prompted me to talk about something that is I think of equal importance and that is not getting addressed as I think it should be.

Back in 2010 I was the IMsL Keynote speaker and I talked about Counting Our Blessings.  I was optimistic about the world and felt that our various communities had a lot to be thankful for.  We had a better President than we’ve had in years.  Our various communities were growing and becoming less threatening to the general public.  And even since 2010 we’ve had a shift in how the world looks at BDSM (no, I’m not going to talk about the 50 shades of grey, although my personal take on it may surprise you).   A study in 2013 from the Netherlands showed that BDSM practitioners scored better on certain indicators of mental health than those who were not kinky, which means overall we were found to be less neurotic, more open, more aware of and sensitive to rejection, more secure in our  relationships and have better overall well-being.  I think that’s pretty  awesome.

And now, 2017 the world has gotten a bit scary (a lot scary really) and there are forces out there who would like to see your various communities go away.  And just what are we doing about that?  I think we’re making it easier for them, sadly.

First, I want to repeat something I’ve said more than once already today.  Various Communities.  Many of us have this mistaken idea that there is one Leather Community or M/s Community or Poly Community or . . . well you get the picture.  And that way of looking, in my opinion, is part of the problem I’m going to talk about today as well as other issues we have in our various communities.  We have multiple communities in the Tribe, I’d call Leather, for example. There is no “one true way” to be Leather, or M/s or Poly or whatever and yet, by calling it a community (singular) it implies unity.   Which brings me to the topic I want to talk about today,

That is the “horizontal violence” and “othering” that I am seeing in our various communities.

What do I mean by horizontal violence?   Horizontal violence is displaced violence directed against one’s peers rather than one’s true adversaries.  It occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being or feeling oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other. Common behaviors that prevent positive change from occurring include gossiping, bullying, finger-pointing, backstabbing and shunning.  Also, the inability to celebrate the victories of our peers and at times even do things that will pull them back, not lift them up.  A friend of mine calls this Crabs In A Bucket.  When one crab tries to climb out of the bucket the other crabs will pull it back into the bucket.   It also includes what I call“othering”.   The tendency in our communities to look down on someone who is not “doing it right” or is “different” in how they approach BDSM, or Leather.    Our tendency to shame those around us

These behaviors recently have been on the rise.  Not just in our various Leather and BDSM  Communities but also in other marginalized communities that I’m in some way affiliated with.

The Sex Worker communities has had breakdown after breakdown in the last few years.  I was at their Desiree conference last year and the shaming that came out of the keynote speech created so much discourse that people left SWOP,  an organization that was created to advocate for sex workers and there were people in the hallway crying and the whole rest of the weekend became dysfunctional full of anger and sadness.  The keynote speaker had some very valid points and she had a right to say what she did as we all do.  Sadly she seemed to not care about the negative impact of her speech, since her speech had little to no solutions or suggestions on how to move forward it was mostly just shaming.  We need to also take responsibility for our actions and words and how they affect others, especially when we’re leaders and activists.

This was not just indicative of Sex Workers, this kind of shaming and blaming and othering and horizontal violence is happening in all of our communities.  I see this in the polyamory world, the goth communities, the gamers that I know and also in the Leather and BDSM world.   And it seems to be on the rise and getting worse.

Recently there has been a huge breakdown in the Portland BDSM/Leather communities with factions being created and people taking sides.  I have friends on both sides of this mess and while I don’t know all the details and I can’t say who is at fault in all of  this I can say that publicly calling into question whether someone had breast cancer to the point that she felt it was necessary to post her diagnosis on Facebook breaks my heart.  No matter what happened and no matter who is in the “wrong”, that action was inconceivable & unconscionable.      That’s horizontal violence at its worse.

And then there is the “othering” that happens all the time.  Defining ourselves by who we aren’t.  I’m polyamorous, not a swinger.  I’m an escort, not a street walker.   I’m a stripper not a whore. I’m a Master not just a Top.  I’m a kinkster but I’m not into “that” kind of play.  Etc. etc. etc.  Why do we have to describe ourselves by who we are not?  We can’t we talk about who we are and celebrate who others are. What are we afraid of?

I’ve been in the world of BDSM/Leather for over 25 years and this isn’t new.  I’ve seen and talked before about how our communities eat their own.,  How we act at times that it’s a zero sum game and there isn’t enough of whatever it is we have to go around.  And yet, it seems more prevalent lately.  This started before the election and yet I think it has a lot to do with the election.

There has been a shift in our world that is pretty profound.  (I keep saying that we’ve gone through some kind of black hole or time warp and are in an alternative universe).

Some things that have shifted are amazing.  Marriage equality for example.  Pot is legal in over half of the united states.  And I would have never expected to hear our Attorney General or our former President talk positively about transgender rights.   And when we have positive forward movement we get backlash.   It’s inevitable — that when we make steps forward there are those who want to push us back.

And that is what we are seeing all over the world today.   The advent of the Trump presidency is just part of it.  There seems to be a nationalist movement in countries all over the world.  Trump is just one of many leaders who (intentionally or not) are fomenting racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of violence.  What does this have to do with our communities and this topic?  Well, like I said, horizontal violence is committed by those who feel marginalized.  And all of the communities I’ve mentioned are more marginalized than ever.   Even though we’ve made great strides in public awareness and are even working at changing the laws through organizations like the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom we all are feeling the brunt of the changes in our political system and our country and world at large.  Overt acts of racism, sexism, xenophobia,  etc are more prevalent than ever.  We are more likely to be targeted because of our sexual lifestyles now than ever before.  Especially those of us who are doubly or triply marginalized, due to our race or gender and our kink.  So we react by lashing out.  Not at those who are out to get us.  No, we lash out at each other.  We bully, we other, we shame, we shun.   We will not survive if we continue on this path.  We will do their work for them and destroy ourselves so they don’t have to. They win if we eviscerate ourselves

So what do we do?  We fight back.  We become part of local protest and political groups and we do our best to be politically and socially aware.  More importantly we take a good long look at ourselves.  What can we do as individuals, leaders and communities to improve our lot and stop the horizontal violence and othering?

Here’s a few places to start.

Othering.  We have to realize that all of our kinks are all okay as long as they are consensual.  That no one way is better than another way.  We need to talk to each other.  Get to know that person who does “it” really differently than us.  It’s hard to other someone when you understand who they are and why they do what they do.

We need to realize that we do not have to be better than someone else to be great.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be all inclusive.  We can still have our separate space.  We can still have M/s space or Queer space, or little space.  That is not being exclusionary that is celebrating our differences.

The horizontal violence is a bit tougher.  It’s pretty ingrained within our communities and takes consciousness.  Being conscious of those around you and how your actions and words affect them are the first steps.  Taking the time to talk to each other.  To listen.  REALLY LISTEN! To be present and allow others to thrive, even if you feel  you are not thriving at the time. We also need to talk to those who differ politically from us.  Believe it or not, not all kinsters are liberals.

We need to address issues in our communities sooner –when the issues first arise, not after they’ve festered and become a nasty boil that when pops sprays puss on the whole community.

We need to educate ourselves, our leaders and communities on Nonviolent communication, Intersectionality  and  Social Justice practices.

Individually we need to speak up immediately when we notice inappropriate behavior, even when it’s from a leader. Especially when it’s from leader.  We need to hold our leaders to an even higher standard.  Many times our leaders are personalities not leaders and we need to be willing ask them to step down if they are not willing to grow and learn.   And our community organizations can create policies for not only dealing with consent violations but also with acts of horizontal violence and even create mediation policies so we don’t end up like Portland.

We have to realize that our actions and words can have consequences both negative and positive.  A good friend sent me this letter recently that shows how even the best of our leaders can affect people negatively by othering and unintentional horizontal violence.

This is what he sent me:

I was an event a couple years ago and decided to attend a workshop on Leather History put on by several of my long-time friends. If I remember correctly, there were 3 men and 1 woman.- all were gay and all extremely well respected leatherfolk. I personally know and had great respect for all.

But, to my complete surprise, these folks all began some serious het-bashing. Their rants included:

Hets had no right to wear leather,

Hets had no right to pretend the Leather history was their history, and

Hets mess up the energy in play spaces and should create their own space.

That was the gist of it – that hets had no right to be in the Leather Community and should create something else for themselves. There were no exceptions stated – it was “all”, not “most” or “with some exceptions”.

I was dumbfounded. Here I was, sitting in the front row – a national titleholder and presenter, former NCSF staffer, contributor to LA&M, a het, and someone who always gave full and accurate credit to the gay community that came before me in every single interaction or workshop I conducted.

I haven’t attending a community event since, and probably won’t. 
I’m sure none of the people on the panel meant for anyone to react this way. Most of our othering and horizontal violence is not intentional.  Like I said, being conscious of how our words may affect others is a part of it.  Which is why I’m not naming names during this speech.  My intent is not to shame anyone for their actions, it’s to make everyone aware that there are things that need to be done to make our communities stronger.

We have to be willing to change.    We have to be willing to put our egos aside and admit that we are not all powerful and all knowing. We have to be willing to make mistakes.  It’s okay.  We have to look at some of our institutionalized ways of being and see where we can make positive change.

I’m going to do my part.  I will freely admit that I “other” people at times.  I make jokes about overly pompous Doms and One True Way poly people and that is not how change comes about.  It comes through education, talking and patience.  It comes with being willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  It means acknowledging not only the wisdom of our elders but the wisdom of our younger members who bring totally new and exciting voices to our various communities.  There is room for all of us, no matter what we think.

I have a personal mission statement.  To bring joy to sexuality and to make a difference in the world.  I challenge all of you to look and see what it is that you can do to affect change your community.  What is your personal mission statement?  How can you a difference in the world?

Thank you.



  1. Carl Bergstrom · June 8, 2017

    One of the things I have noticed starting further back than the elections is an increasing reluctance for anyone to acknowledge their mistakes. More often than not mistakes are characterized as triumphs and any ill-effect is blamed on some scapegoat ‘other’. It is refreshing to see your demonstration of strength against this.

    (Who still thinks it’s cool to point out where he has found and fixed his mistakes)


  2. David L. Caster · May 11

    The particular kind of interpersonal dynamics discussed here are not unique to the particular communities in question, and I’m almost certain that you Allena and hopefully most readers will recognize a number of these patterns of behaviors as common in many social contexts.

    A central theme in all of this, at least in my view, is that people tend to turn too many of their interactions into a contest. Obviously it doesn’t have to be that way, but too often we human beings are looking for some kind of prop for our egos and somebody has to lose for someone else to win the resultant zero-sum game.

    Another theme is that of “tribe” and the tendency to identify with a group. Add this to basing social and interpersonal dynamics on contests and one can explain a good measure of “othering” and “Horizontal violence”.

    Putting these ideas into a global context, something that is easy to observe is the plight of the refugee fleeing extreme distress created by war, greed and the overweening desire for power: the wholesale rejection of responsibility by extreme nationalists and even basically “good” people to aid fellow human beings—women and children held up as threats and “other”.

    The world is indeed changing, partly due to poor stewardship of the planet, and much attributable to economic disparity. The promoters of fear, uncertainty, and doubt need an enemy to facilitate their evil. They divert attention from their nefarious intent and project it on “outsiders”—the other—and technology has greatly magnified the reach of the propaganda machine that promulgates their ideologies.

    Were it that these destructive patterns could be defeated by reason and dialogue alone. I’m not sure they can be.


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