Tristan Taormino interviews former NCSF Executive Director Judy Guerin.
Reprinted with permission from On Our Backs Magazine
By Tristan Taormino
The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) was formed in 1997 as a national advocacy and lobbying organization that promotes tolerance of consenting adults to perform alternative sexual expression. NCSF's primary focus is the SM/leather/fetish community because it's such a large constituency that nobody else represents in Washington, DC. NCSF holds a seat on the National Policy Roundtable of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force where it meets with about 55 other groups like the Human Rights Campaign, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, ACLU, and AFL-CIO to talk about national strategic issues related to policy.
At 48, Judy Guerin, mother of three and longtime SM practitioner, was ready to retire. Instead, at the urging of community members, she took the job of executive director of NCSF, which plans to open its official office this spring in Washington, DC. Just before a March meeting of the National Policy Roundtable to discuss sex and politics and teaching GLBT leaders to be more comfortable addressing issues of sex, On Our Backs spoke to Guerin about sex activism and the bumpy road ahead under Bush and Ashcroft.
On Our Backs: So how did you become executive director of NCSF? Isn't it an unpaid job?
Judy Guerin: Yes, I'm doing it for free. NCSF really can't afford to have anyone in a paid position at this particular point in time. I've been involved in both the transgender and the SM/leather/fetish communities for a long period of time as an activist, and people knew that my children were getting ready to go off to college, and that I was getting ready to retire. They thought it would be a good opportunity to get me back involved in community organizing.
On Our Backs: So this was your idea of retiring?
Judy Guerin: Yes.
On Our Backs: What do your kids think of your job defending kinky people?
Judy Guerin: They actually are very supportive of it and think it's great. One of them is heterosexual, one is bisexual, and one is gay. I've raised my children to be very open-minded and diverse in their thinking. I've had interesting reactions from other people. A lot of people ask me, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a job like this?"
On Our Backs: And what's your answer to that?
Judy Guerin: [laughs] Well, my answer is that I'm fighting for sexual freedom rights, which I think is an important cause and deserves attention. I'm not afraid to say that I'm involved personally in alternative sexual practices, and that I've been a victim of discrimination and other things as a result of it, as have many practitioners.
On Our Backs: So your personal history is part of why you're so passionate about your job.
Judy Guerin: My involvement in SM/leather/fetish started really before there were organized communities, so I grew up feeling very much like a gay or transgendered person might feel. I felt different, abnormal, like I didn't fit in, and I wasn't able to share this with other people. It was a great feeling of freedom to actually be able to realize that this is a very common interest and it's not abnormal and lots of people do it. Today, it's much easier to do because there's much more information available. But 15 or 20 years ago, that was not the case, and people still today experience tremendous discrimination because of it.
On Our Backs: What are some of the things NCSF does?
Judy Guerin: We work on a lot of incidents when people get arrested because they're doing SM or clubs get shut down. We send a team of people out and we work with the media to try to get the situation portrayed properly. We work with the communities to organize and to try to figure out what to do legally, politically, and financially. We're seeing more and more of these incidents because the sexual freedom movement in the United States has really taken hold, and it's started to have a lot of activity now.
On Our Backs: That's very much like the gay and lesbian movement. The more visibility of gay and lesbian people, the higher incidence of hate crimes. Do you feel the same things in the sex-positive community?
Judy Guerin: Yes, it's just a natural part of the process, and the way that any movement wins its rights. We've seen a tremendous explosion of people coming out of the SM closet over the past three to five years.
On Our Backs: Wasn't NCSF involved in the Attleboro case last year?
Judy Guerin: Yes. Attleboro was a case where an SM play party in Attleboro, Massachusetts, was raided by police. A woman was arrested for "assault with a deadly weapon", for allegedly striking another woman with a wooden spoon. In Massachusetts, consent is not a defense, and there's some previous case history related to an SM case in the seventies that is not favorable toward this. The person who hosted the party was also arrested on a variety of charges. Both of those cases are still pending. We were really successful in turning the initial media response around. At first, the media focused on "Sadomasochistic Sex Club Raided by Police", which makes it sound like all of the people were perverts and deviants; after we came in, the media began questioning whether the police themselves infringed on people's civil rights.
On Our Backs: Sex and politics haven't had such a great relationship, especially recently. Do you think it is still difficult to talk about sex in a political arena?
Judy Guerin: I think it's a little bit more acceptable to talk about sex, even more than it was two years ago, primarily because of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. I mean, once the word "pussy" was said on a national news program - ex-Presidential Counsel Lloyd Cutler told Mike Wallace that it is as normal for the President to "talk pussy" with his friend, Vernon Jordan, as it would be for anyone else - sex was being much more openly discussed on television. It just became very common for people to hear about sex that was a bit unusual, with cigars, for example. So if you review all of the academic studies and papers that have been written about the impact of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, I think the one positive aspect for the sexual freedom movement is that it is now a little bit more acceptable to talk about sex. Also, the young people in the United States who've grown up in the MTV generation have a very different and much more fluid view of sex, sexuality, and gender than people in my generation do.
On Our Backs: So now that Clinton is gone, and we've got Bush, what do you think is in store for queer people and perverts and leatherfolk under Bush? Did your duties double once he was elected?
Judy Guerin: One of our main concerns is that during this presidential term, there is a likelihood that there will be several Supreme Court Justice nominations, possibly three or four. It's already a very conservative and split court. Appointments that Bush makes will impact our lives for the next 50 years since these are lifetime appointments. I think the good news about the way the election happened is that it limits somewhat how conservative this administration can get, but I don't think any of us are encouraged by some of what we've seen so far, particularly the appointment of John Aschroft.
On Our Backs: I've heard rumors that, for example, the porn industry is terrified. They're hysterical about Ashcroft's new job. People who run adult businesses are concerned about being shut down or being targeted with obscenity laws. Do you think it's realistic?
Judy Guerin: I just think that whenever possible there will be conservative trends to target groups or prosecute for obscenity based on morality issues related to the radical Right.
On Our Backs: If someone runs their own local BDSM organization or support group or party, what should they do to protect themselves?
Judy Guerin: It really depends on the circumstances. We have a national law enforcement outreach program, and we not only go around the country and educated law enforcement about the difference between SM and abuse and domestic violence, but also educate the community in how to protect themselves legally, both private citizens and groups doing different types of events. The problem with SM and the law is that it's poorly defined; many times the laws are vague. I think that these attacks will continue, and I think that they'll get worse, because as it becomes less acceptable socially to persecute gays and lesbians, these people will look at other people to persecute, and SM folks are really the next group on the list. On the other hand, you know, the Republicans do have strong beliefs in privacy rights, and that's how we will approach the issue with the administration is that what consenting adults do in private shouldn't have government interference.
On Our Backs: But don't you also think that especially more radical Republicans are into privacy rights except for, notably, gays and lesbians, minorities, and other people who fall outside their idea of "normal". They like privacy, but it is applied with a double standard.
Judy Guerin: I think that's true. While I said earlier that it's a little easier to talk about sex in the United States right now, it's not politically comfortable certainly to talk about sex. Politicians are not likely to endorse sex-positive initiatives that may have some moral implications for them. I think it's a difficult four years, and I'm disappointed that we're dealing with this administration. But I also think that if you look at what's happened with the GLBT movement during Republican administrations, there's also a strong unity building and a strong movement building during those periods of times. I think we have a big job socially to change the perception of SM that gets constant negative reinforcement in the media and entertainment industry. I think this is a good opportunity for the SM/leather/fetish community to really unite, get organized, and do some of the groundwork we need to move forward in the future.
NCSF is leading a major national campaign—Consent Counts—to change the laws and police practices that our communities now endure, and to establish that consent is available as a defense in criminal BDSM prosecutions.