Invisibility versus Illegibility: KinkForAll shows how “kink”is everything you didn’t know it can be

This Saturday, February 25th, I’ll have the privilege of participating in KinkForAll Denver, an open-to-the-public “unconference whose theme is sex and relationships education\’with a twist.

Rather than invite “experts to give lectures to a passive audience, KinkForAll Denver follows in the footsteps of previous KinkForAll events by treating everyone as an expert, encouraging them to share what they know in a highly social, peer-to-peer learning environment. “What excites me most about KinkForAll is the idea that everyone has valuable skills and ideas to share. We’re all experts on our own experiences, said Rebecca Crane, one of a dedicated group of sex and relationships advocates helping to “unorganize the KinkForAll Denver event.

Much of the world we live in is uncomfortable with and hostile toward education about intimacy, making many people fearful of openly discussing “taboos. Sexual stigmas sustain an aristocratic stranglehold on information, privileging credentialed gatekeepers over the only true expert on your own desires: you! One reason speaking freely about sex, gender, and relationships is useful is the way doing so can make us aware of the limitations of our knowledge. KinkForAll’s participatory format challenges the notion that only the gatekeepers can talk about taboo topics; feeling nervous, uninformed, or inexperienced doesn’t mean you have nothing valuable to share.

Maintaining a stranglehold on sexual information also makes it easy to pervert sexual relationships into a tool for controlling people. You can see examples of this in practically every TV commercial, billboard, and sphere of advertising. The commercialization of sex\’along with its counterpoint, the over-sexualization of commerce\’betrays an uncomfortable paradox: even though sex and relationships are vitally important to us, we don’t know enough about them to understand how these things affect our lives. Is it any wonder, then, that many people are often scared of discussing sexual things publicly, honestly, and freely?

Of course, one of the main causes for this fear is lack of knowledge. The fact is, we don’t know a lot about intimacy, its diverse formulations, or the interplay and distinctions between the many kinds that exist. Oh sure, we say we do, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize when people overwhelmingly agree they’re getting sent “mixed messages regarding sex, gender, and relationships, something’s unclear.

This isn’t just a theoretical frustration, either. When we don’t know that we don’t know something, we can’t discover useful, safe, and ethical ways to engage with or to learn more about it! This behavioral catalyst is called “illegibility, and while the term is usually applied to domains of industry and public policy, it also applies to queer theory and identity politics. In his review of Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott, Venkatesh Rao writes, “States and large organizations exhibit this pattern of behavior most dramatically, but individuals frequently exhibit it in their private lives as well.

Ironically, part of the difficulty in understanding illegibility is that it bears a striking resemblance to, yet a subtle difference from, a more familiar behavioral catalyst: invisibility. Both are ways one might respond to something one doesn’t understand. When something is invisible, one simply doesn’t register its presence. On the other hand, when something is illegible, one misinterprets it as something it is not.

Consider the difficulties in talking about sex. Before you talk about sex, you have to define your terms. Is sex “penetrative sexual intercourse? If that’s true, is phone sex not sex? Is sex “two or more people, one or more orgasms? If that’s true, what should we call penetrative sexual intercourse where an orgasm isn’t experienced by anyone? Surely no one would say such an act “doesn’t count as sex, right? So, if it’s this hard to clarify “sex, is it any wonder trying to communicate nuances of a deeply-held, personal fantasy is so much harder?

That difficulty is due to illegibility; you might be able to say “I fantasize about being spanked and, since the idea that one might enjoy being spanked is common knowledge, you can make your fantasy visible to your partner. But, for many people, “being spanked is simply a communicative label that doesn’t actually convey (i.e., doesn’t make legible) the emotional tenor or erotic context of the fantasy. While I suspect everyone experiences feeling illegible at one point or another, few people can recognize things that are illegible to themselves. That’s what not knowing what you don’t know means.

In many ways, KinkForAll (“KFA) faces illegibility problems:

Maymay and Sara Eileen organized the first KFA in New York in 2009, I believe, and it has happened in several other cities around the US since. It’s an awesome event with an interesting branding problem: it is very hard, it turns out, to be an event with the word “kink in your title, and not be about BDSM. I say this because I have been confused by this since 2009 despite maymay’s frequent and patient explanations, and from the chatter on the email list and the questions I get when I talk about KFA, I know I’m not alone.

The structural design of KinkForAll unconferences were an intentional, radical departure from earlier, legible sex education initiatives. In James C. Scott’s words, “[T]he most illegible educational system would be completely informal, nonstandardized instruction determined entirely by local mutuality.” Although illegibility produces predictable (and frustrating) misunderstandings, that’s how KinkForAll was designed to work. As KinkForAll Denver unorganizer Rebecca Crane said, “the way to make something more legible is [to] talk about it in great detail a lot[, w]hich is different from the way you make invisible things visible: By talking about them loudly

One way to spot illegibility is to look for questions that make little sense. By way of example, a reporter recently asked the KinkForAll Denver unorganizers, “Do you feel that Denver is a kink-friendly city? and “How do you respond to conservatives who feel that the kink lifestyle is morally wrong and on par with insanity? These questions revealed the limits of what the reporter knows about “kink. (And now that the reporter’s article is published, take a look at the images chosen to supplement the piece.)

I have long hoped KinkForAll would show people that the word “kink is too often too narrowly defined. Neither kink nor sex is merely about who did what to whom, as though we were playing a game of Clue. Rather, these terms describe complex experiences, regardless of whether you identify as “kinky or “vanilla.

To some people, “kink means “sex with a twist. To others, it means a specific subset of sexuality subcultures, such as leather or swinging. And therein lies the problem: kink, like sex, is a term with no consensus. Everyone uses it, but without being on the same page about what it means. This causes confusion, misunderstanding, and\’in worse cases\’outright discrimination.

A “slut is just someone who has more sexual partners than you. Likewise, someone who’s “kinky is simply someone whose intimate desires seem weirder than yours. So unless the reporter thinks of Denver as a city where everyone wants the same exact thing in their relationships\’and I know for a fact that’s false\’then Denver has to be a kink-friendly city, by definition!

I want KinkForAll Denver to be a place, like a friendly coffee shop, where people who don’t know one another can meet and discover they’re both passionate about the same things. This makes people visible to one another. And I want KinkForAll Denver to be a place where someone who’s been afraid of public speaking moves to the front of the room and gives a presentation because it’s only going to be for 20 minutes and the person before them seemed a little nervous anyway, so why not try? This teaches people how to make themselves visible to one another. And I also want KinkForAll Denver to be a place where someone, like that reporter, who thinks of “kink as a “lifestyle realized that, actually, it’s just an idea\’making certain values of “kink that were illegible, legible.

This gets personal. Being invisible hurts like hell. Meanwhile, being illegible precludes the possibility of being invisible. I think it’s important to grieve for hurts caused by illegibility, as well as ones caused by invisibility. It’s important because knowing how to do that is a prerequisite to treating others compassionately.

Most of all, I want KinkForAll Denver to be a place where participants learn that they don’t need permission to talk about whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want\’whether that be at the next KinkForAll unconference, at their office, at their church, or anywhere. Because my real goal for KinkForAll isn’t even about sex. It’s about giving each of us the power we need to make our lives worth living.

And that starts with teaching people how to see what’s invisible, and how to read what’s illegible.

Be part of KinkForAll Denver at the Tivoli Student Union on Auraria Campus in Denver, CO. You can sign up to participate on the KinkForAll Denver homepage, Facebook, FetLife, TwtVite, Upcoming, or Plancast pages. Learn more about KinkForAll at http://KinkForAll.org, our Frequently Asked Questions page, or our public mailing list. Our wiki also has more information regarding what to expect and how to participate.

maymay

Formerly a free software programmer “by day” and a sexual freedom advocate “by night,” Maymay has been an outspoken member of kinky, queer communities since 2002. Now a full-time activist, writer, and public speaker, he frequently examines cultural and political issues ranging from censorship to community building and beyond on his blog at maybemaimed.com. He thrives in harsh environments, such as on Twitter, where he's @maymaym.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Deb Weiner says:

    Beautifully said.  Thanks for sharing.