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Guest Blog – Touch: “A Taste of Kink”

By Russell J. Stambaugh, PhD

What is Taste of Kink?  It is an educational program run twice at AASECT, Annual Conference in Minneapolis and again in Denver.  A three-hour fundraiser for AASECT, it conferred three continuing education credits (CE’s) that count towards AASECT Certification and other professional licensing requirements.  The program consisted of participants contracting to see and possibly experience a “taste” of kink activities by signing a waiver, in much the same manner that kink social group members do when they attend kink social events.  Six or seven teams of experienced kink educators  model for the trainees how to negotiate and obtain consent for a specific kink activity, as well as answering questions about the demo and their lifestyles.  At almost all of the stations, trainees had the opportunity to experience a sample version of the kink activities if they formally negotiated and agreed to do so.  Example stations included bootblacking, hot wax play, flogging, spanking, puppy play, bondage, foot worship, and violet wand play, all in the context of negotiation, rehearsing their safe words, a brief experience of the activity, and aftercare.  AASECT Certified Members served as safeties to observe the activities, answer additional questions, and support participants who might become uncomfortable with any feelings that were provoked by the sessions.

History:  The original title and design for the educational program “Taste of Kink” were Susan Wright’s work.  In the decade before the publication of the Fifty Shades novels, there was a misconception that BDSM was painful and nonconsensual. Professionals always asked: Why do people do BDSM? What does it feel like that people want to do it? To educate professionals and interested novices in the LGBTQ and allied communities, the local kink groups wanted to put on programs  that showed what BDSM was, and the idea was to provide a smorgasbord of light interactive demos that provided training on how to negotiate consent and gave a nonthreatening overview of kinky experiences.  Many kink local groups routinely program advanced demos that were perfect for their regular clientele, while a program like Taste of Kink might attract curious people to those locally produced efforts.  

In 2012, the AASECT Annual Conference team for the meeting in Austin arranged for a nonmember presenter to give an introduction to BDSM as a breakout session.  This presenter, not being familiar with AASECT CE rules and policies, decided at the last minute that her presentation would be amplified with a demo.  Despite failing to describe these plans in the conference program, she recruited a sympathetic conference goer to stage this demo, and presented it.  Her session was jammed with attendees, overfilling the space and surrounding her presentation area.  The presenter and her assistant graciously volunteered to be photographed by the numerous smart phones in attendance.  When the assistant took off her top, a Board Member in the audience left to deal with the emergency, and an intern who was helping administer session logistics retreated to the front desk to complain she was seeing violence in an AASECT conference presentation.  The presenter had not only unwittingly violated AASECT CE protocol by deviating from her program description, but she had invited people to film, and potentially to post pictures of the action on social media in ways that might have put conference attendees, who had not given consent to be photographed, at risk of problems at work or at home, let alone failing to secure AASECT’s consent to any of these missteps.  

Susan and I were involved in helping AASECT craft a positive response to this incident that minimized stigma.  Needless to say, many of the ways this particular session was done violated the kinds of contracting that are typical in many BDSM social groups.  With the exception of the Folsom Street Fair, photos are typicall and very strictly forbidden.  In many venues, smartphones are an unwelcome intrusion.  We suggested that with resources available like the AASECT AltSex Special Interest Group (AltSex SIG) and NCSF, which had access to experienced kink educators, it should not be necessary for AASECT to bring outside presenters in on this topic.  Why not use people who knew AASECT’s culture and training needs?  

Thereafter, Susan and I were in continual conversation with successive Annual Conference planning teams.  But it took several years to get a conference where we had adequate site and local educator resources available.  Because AASECT’s Code of Ethical Conduct prevents this sort of touch between AASECT members, we could not have AASECT members providing the education for each other.  Some AASECT supervisors also might have supervisory relationships with potential participants and such conduct would vilolate their supervision agreements.  Although the official policy of AASECT was supportive of BDSM education, not all members shared these open views and trainees would have realistic reasons to be concerned about what some other members might think.  And worries of this sort were a distraction from our educational objectives for such a session even if we could overcome them.  So we decided upon an initial event that required a convenient off-site location and experienced kink educators and professionally trained safeties from the AASECT AltSex Special Interest Group who were also sophisticated about BDSM practices.  Understanding AASECT’s culture and kink lifestyles, they would be in an excellent position to support any AASECT participants who might have questions or conflicts during the event. 

BDSM as Social Organization in Monterey:  In 2013, we thought we had these elements assembled in Monterey California.  We were near a very strong community in San Francisco and had a bondage B&B in the community that might provide an offsite location.  I went to Monterey for a site visit.  Sometimes my work requires sacrifices!  Unfortunately, the B&B was in a rural subdivision 40 minutes away from our conference site, and a large group of attendees could not be bussed there in a timely manner and without creating a disturbance in the neighborhood.  We dropped our plans for Taste of Kink in Monterey and did “Kink as Social Organization” instead, bringing the B&B operators, Jim Volcelka and Montaine; the head of Folsom Street Events Demetri Moshoyannis; Richard Sprott, Director of CARAS;  Anna Randall as a representative of TASHRA, Janet Hardy author of several classic books and principal of Greenery Press; and Race Bannon, founder of the Kink Aware Professionals List for a panel about organizations that serve the kink communities.  That was attended by 120 people, and was highly rated, awarded two CE’s for each attendee, and generated about $10,000.00 for AASECT.

Taste of Kink I in Minneapolis, 2016: We finally had good offsite space and highly professional educational resources in place in Minneapolis and we ran the first Taste of Kink at club space. We jammed 100 participants in for three hours. The local group provided hors d’oeuvres, SportSheets provided gift bags, and 6 different stations offered tastings which were gingerly taken advantage of by a minority of participants. The feedback we got was intense, and very positive. It ranged from a couple of AASECT veterans who thought it was all old hat, they had seen it before in the 1970s; to participants who cried they were so overcome that AASECT had taken kink seriously enough to allow the presentation. There were a few problems, too. Although everyone praised the care and concern in the program design, some wanted to play but felt too inhibited because senior members were present, and they could not let themselves go in public space (which was fine in this case since “play” was not the point of the event). However this is an issue for many professionals who can’t participate in local kinky social organizations, so it is far from unreasonable. Also, one AASECT member saw fit to get partly naked during her tasting, which we had not seen fit to prohibit, but it raised eyebrows. Some of the educators who modeled how to receive the activities were naked because it was consistent with how they typically play. Overall, the safeties had little to do, of the 100 participants, many had questions, only one wanted to leave early. But that was a logistical problem, it being dark outside and a mile walk back to the conference hotel. This imposed an inconvenience that might dissuade uncomfortable participants from leaving if they felt they had to. Mostly the safeties served as co-facilitators, explaining things when the educators were busy. But this led to the objection that the safeties were too senior and so ubiquitous that they inhibited some people from tasting because of their possible power relationships with general participants. The event was run as a fundraiser for AASECT generating about $5,000 for AASECT less the rental charges for the club. NCSF and a private donor covered AASECT expenses for the buses. 3 AASECT CE’s were generated for most of the 100 participants.

Taste of Kink II, Denver, 2018: On the basis of that feedback, Susan I accepted the 2018 Annual Conference team’s invitation to repeat a Taste of Kink in Denver. Again, we had access to experienced kink educators in the local area. Susan and I thought that transportation had been a problem for anyone who might have wanted to leave early, and we addressed this by having the event at the conference hotel. The Denver Marriott Downtown had a free ballroom well-segregated from the main AASECT event, so it would be easy for educators to off load their equipment, set up and leave without disturbing other hotel patrons with their garb or gear. We used different people as safeties from the AltSex SIG in hopes of not only giving more SIG members a chance to contribute, but to create opportunity for participants who felt inhibited last time to taste without the same safeties on hand.

We invited Neil Cannon to serve as master of ceremonies because I had health difficulties one month prior to the event that might have precluded my participation.  Happily, I proved healthy enough to co-facilitate. Everyone signed the same waivers that had been used successfully at a Taste of Kink in Denver, and we devoted somewhat less time to going over them in favor of more time for attendees to experience each station.  We got some feedback that more time should have been devoted to consent discussion.  SportSheets again provided lovely gift bags (pictured below), and requested that we use their products in a demo, but we declined this request out of a desire to have the educational content free of any commercial considerations.  They independently arranged a hospitality suite which they opened after the event, but was not endorsed or monitored by the program team.  

During the 2017 Annual Conference, the Denver Marriott raised objections to the event, and it required a frenzy of last-minute negotiations with the Board and Annual Conference team to avoid a cancellation.  One of the late arising requirements was no nudity.  Susan and I took responsibility for informing the educators, who had not been told that nudity was off limits in their contracting with us prior to the event.  All the educators agreed to this revision, but some of their teammates arrived late to the orientation session which had to be repeated and one sub took her top off late in the event, so partial nudity was present in the last 10 minutes of the event in violation of our agreement with AASECT.  One trainee left early, troubled by something, but declined to discuss her concerns with the safeties, Susan, Neil or myself.  And once again, the event garnered great participant reviews, generated a potential of 360 CEs for AASECT members, and grossed $24,000 for the AASECT general fund in exchange for modest room and setup expenses.  NCSF organized the presenters with compensation for parking due to the logistical expenses of bringing their equipment, but no professional fees.

No event in Philadelphia, 2019:  The Annual Conference team was immediately enthusiastic, and plans were drawn up to present in 2019 in Philadelphia.  Ruby Bouie Johnson and Susan recruited educators who are people of color from Philadelphia under the same terms as in Denver, with the addition of a small stipend to be paid to each of the educators by AASECT.  In the interim, the new Board of Directors met and passed the objectionable policy against continuing education credit for educational programs that included educational touch.  The Taste of Kink producers, now including Susan, Ruby and myself were not informed of this policy until December.  We objected to changing the agreement which had worked perfectly well in previous events.  First we were told the policy was only being tentatively proposed, but that employing consensual educational touch might increase liability.  The Philadelphia educators refused to re-negotiate their agreement with AASECT on terms that were different than the previous predominantly white educator teams in Denver and Minneapolis.  AASECT persisted in the misconception that Taste of Kink could be run with a one hour didactic presentation on consent, for which one CE would be awarded, and participants would be on their own to attend demonstrations for the latter two hours.  This led to their claim that they had not cancelled Taste of Kink and wished to proceed.  In fact, AASECT President Susan Stiritz was informed within a week of the notice  that AASECT was going to enforce its new CE policy that AASECT had thereby cancelled a Taste of Kink.  

In the midst of listserv discussions about this dispute, an AASECT member came forward in support of the Board’s decision, indicating that she had been sexually harassed at Taste of Kink and had left.  I do not know for sure that she is the same person who I knew to have left during the Denver event.  It is hardly surprising that she had not informed the event team of this event, Susan and I are aware from our 2014 Consent Violations Survey that only about a quarter of people who experience consent violations actually go to event staff with complaints, and only a minority of those who do are satisfied by the event staff’s responses.  Although Susan Stiritz seemed nonplussed when this revelation did not change NCSF’s willingness to renegotiate the design of Taste of Kink, it hardly constituted a basis for so doing.  Taste of Kink already had language in its waiver that was more strict than the general AASECT behavioral guidelines routinely included in AASECT Conference Program.  We did not have then, and do not have now, any evidence that this incident had anything to do with the educational touch guidelines of Taste of Kink, nor were we informed of it in a manner that would have enabled us to address it during the event itself.  This does not mean that we do not take it seriously, but that is not a matter of educational policy or even event design.

Given that AASECT may well be correct in refusing to grant CE for some programs employing consensual educational touch, it is worth considering why Susan and I used it in Taste of Kink.

Certainly, the perceived demand for such a program among AASECT trainees was part of our motivation, and Susan’s success running a Taste of Kink for non-kinky audiences was the starting point for our design.  But several other design considerations were even more important.

Intended Audiences:

Our target audiences were primarily AASECT members who were not already members of existing kinky communities, for whom the activities were already likely to be well understood and familiar.   We were especially interested in programming for people who would not have the nerve to go to a kink social club or national event because of issues of professionalism, personal safety and community reputation.  Here was a safe place where such material could be encountered without the risks of encountering embarrassed friends, colleagues or clients.   A secondary population was AASECT AltSex Special Interest Group who did not need instruction in basic kink activities, but who wanted to be able to use their expertise to educate and support AASECT members who are not so sophisticated about the content.

Design Objectives:

First, although seeing actual kink behavior was a popular draw, in the days of PornHub and a host of on-line video educational programs, neither Susan nor I thought that merely showing behaviors that kinky people do was a sufficient design objective.  Some kink behaviors were too upsetting and extreme to demonstrate.  Others were too complicated and lengthy to do in the time allotted.  And while the opportunity to question BDSM lifestyle participants was a definite objective of Taste of Kink that was well met by the actual design, it was easy for AASECT trainees to get such a training experience at other places.  

Second, the educational touch had to occur in the realistic context of consent, negotiation, play and aftercare that characterizes play between casual friends and strangers at kink clubs.  This modeled consent in an interactive setting and de-sensationalized aspects of play.  In a situation in which privileged professionals get to view the behavior of marginalized subcultural denizens, there is plenty of opportunity for further marginalizing of the educators.  The design we created discourages objectification and promotes curiosity, empathy and equality.

Third, in so far as curious and excited AASECT participants experienced apprehension and caution about playing, they were in an excellent position to empathize with clients and their own students, who experienced kink negotiation in much the same way.  It is partly for this reason that we have been little persuaded that it is improper for AASECT members to do this in front of one another despite obvious status and power differences within the AASECT community.  This condition is characteristic of kink communities too, and drives home a seriousness and vulnerability that is very characteristic of kink consent.

Fourth, by providing light activities that feel differently than they look, people are able to recognize that their assumptions about kink might not be right, and that kink is often theatrical and psychological, not just a matter of technique, costume or equipment.  Challenging assumptions is in and of itself destigmatizing.

And fifth, we felt that AASECT fully accrediting this event (and later, having it in their own space, rather than off-site) was destigmatizing of touch, kink, sex, and the process of educating about it, one of NCSF existential goals. 

It is, I think, obvious from the statement of these positives not only why we are adamantly opposed to AASECT’s stigmatizing CE policy, but also why we do not think that a one hour consent lecture and freedom to roam a bunch of kinky demonstrations is an acceptable substitute design.  And frankly, believing that, we think very little of any AASECT official who would propose this.  AASECT is here to amplify our abilities as educators, not diminish them.

All of this is not to suggest that Taste of Kink is already in a perfect state, and requires no improvements.  We still wish that a safer place for demonstrations could be provided where people who were uncomfortable playing under the gaze of others could be accommodated.  We still have yet to run a Taste of Kink that was fully diverse with respect to race.  Frankly there are important but secondary reasons to defend nudity in these events.  Nudity is about vulnerability for kink participants and AASECT trainees alike, and makes the consent context more realistic, even when AASECT participants cannot get naked themselves.  Because participants might be triggered, it is necessary that they be allowed to leave without sacrificing their CEs, lest they feel excessively compelled to stay.  While only two or three people seem to have left two events serving over 220 people, it is objectionable to offer credit for a program that is not fully attended.  This is a genuine requirement of CE reciprocity with APA and other professional bodies.  Barring 220 people from profiting from a program for the needs of three people is not proportionate or consistent with our educational mission.  Finally, it may not be sex positive or good advocacy, but AASECT needs to be able to fully comply with its contractual obligations to its conference hotels.  If they cannot be relied upon to permit legitimate AASECT training programs, other meeting space needs to be obtained, and the needs of the many are better served with off-site space where such trainings can be safely conducted.

Note that I have not suggested changes to discourage sexual harassment.  Taste of Kink is not, in its present form, as conducive to sexual harassment even to the degree that general AASECT sessions are.  I have included the Taste of Kink waiver participants were required to sign, and ask if that isn’t more of a guarantee than most AASECT programs offer?  It is important to recognize that behavior defined as harassment occurs in a larger social context, is already regarded as personal deviance, and one or even more episodes of it do not inherently reflect a defect in organizational culture or in specific program design.  Taste of Kink did not provide any way for AASECT Members to taste kink with one another.  So it is a misunderstanding of the program design and execution to suggest the harassment was a likely product of the design.

I belabor this at length for two very serious reasons.  In the wake of AASECT November 2018 Board meeting, AASECT has instituted policies that are damaging not just to BDSM education, but to all activities that involve touch, including Tantra, massage, sex work, erotica, live clinical demonstrations and other potentially safe and valuable learning experiences for professionals who society legitimately expects to be experienced, sophisticated and tolerant of diverse personal expression.  If AASECT is not promising that, what exactly are we offering the public?   The AASECT policy marginalizes much more than kink.  Secondly, AASECT saw fit to specifically regulate, and thus chose to reinforce stigma not just about touch but about BDSM and nudity specifically.  This offers AASECT no real protection if the ban is not evidence-based, and AASECT has no such evidence.  If these things are appropriate to program objectives and those objectives are consistent with the AASECT mission, they need to be approved.  Barring any consensual behavior regardless of context is stigmatizing overreach and a retreat from full professionalism. 

I have presented Tate of Kink’s design and history in detail not to defend it.  It is fine and AASECT even still wants it.  I have fought AASECT’s policy to protect AASECT.  It turns out that from the viewpoint of professionalism, you cannot marginalize others without marginalizing yourself.  The field of sexology needs AASECT not to do that.  We at NCSF need you not to do it, too.  Think of it as flattening the curve on social stigma.

© Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, May, 2020, Ann Arbor, MI All rights reserved.

Originally published in Elephant in the Hot Tub