Patrick Mulcahey: “Learning About Learning”


Big P & Little p. Photo by Leland

A Most Excellent keynote from Patrick Mulcahey. One of my most heroic heroes. 




Good evening. It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak with you tonight.

A little over two years ago, I heard a rumor that shocked me: the San Francisco Leathermen’s Discussion Group was about to fold. LDG, as we call it at home, was conceived in 1996 by the late Salem Bucholz as a monthly reading-slash-discussion group for leathermen. It met in living rooms. Among the earliest topics we find “The Bible and Homosexuality,” “Homoerotic Images on Greek Vases,” a discussion of the infamous Spanner Case moderated by Peter Fiske, and even something called “Leather Discussion,” I’m guessing about leather care, since it was led by Daddy Alan Selby, originator of “Mr S.” and so much else in our San Francisco scene.

That first year also saw a smattering of what we’d consider more standard entry-level presentations: fisting by Bert Herrman, bondage, flogging, boots. But what gave LDG its specific flavor was a sense of “something for everyone,” a place where newcomers of any age could rub shoulders and make friends with the city’s most seasoned and celebrated leathermen. So many of our organizations have life spans shorter than a poodle’s; in dog years, LDG is almost a century old.

When I came back to the public scene after some years of activism around AIDS and homelessness, I came back to LDG. I called the leather friend, Troy, who’d been chairing LDG. Yes, he said, it was true. He and his team were worn out. No one had stepped up. No programs were scheduled. They were ready to let it go, unless — was I interested in taking it over?

Was I?

I have a long but not very illustrious history in leather. I never had anything I thought of as a “leather education.” It never occurred to me I was supposed to. I learned to tie up boys at Camp Twelve Pines — all due respect to Midori, the world’s foremost bondage instructor is still the Boy Scouts of America. When I started tying up older guys for less innocent purposes, I paid attention when their shoulders hurt, their hands got numb; I made adjustments, I learned. I never heard I should be worrying about nerve damage until I’d been at it for thirty years. I learned how to use floggers, whips, toys by playing around with them on my own, or having a friend show me the basics. It just didn’t seem that hard to figure out how to do the things to another man I was so highly motivated to do without killing or maiming anybody. And without ever attending a class. I knew kink classes existed, but they were never on my radar until people started asking me to teach them. I said no.

Honestly? I thought “classes” were something straight people did. They didn’t have leather bars, they didn’t have leather clubs, maybe they didn’t have friends who could come over and say, “Pinch the skin, point the needle away, and keep steady because he may jump.” But suddenly it seemed all my friends were “teaching” and/or “taking classes.” Everybody couldn’t be wrong. Come to think of it, did I not have great yawning gaps in my leather prowess? What did I really know about flogging? I still use only one hand. What did I know about fisting? Only how to do it. What did I know about fireplay? Nothing, especially Why? And those were just the F’s!

The vogue of “kink classes,” the very fact of them, was turning me from a happy, confident leatherman into a guy who felt inadequate to detain a willing bottom without nerve damage. I think it can safely be said that the most resounding success of our education scene is to make us all feel inadequate. To instill in us the belief that the things we do are rarefied and exacting, and it would be foolhardy to attempt them without authorized instruction. It’s the same strategy used to sell us mouthwash and underarm deodorant: “Without us, you’ll never get laid.” So I did exactly what it seems we’re all expected to do: I started taking classes and saying yes to “teaching” them.

Teaching felt good. I made up handouts. My way was the right way. I was an authority. I think it can also be said that kink education has been a splendid success at making our educators feel good about themselves.

“Taking” classes, on the other hand, was the most alienating kink experience I ever had. In one class a woman wearing a miner’s light raced the clock to put a hundred needles in a man’s scrotum. Never heard the man’s name or heard a word from him. None of the forty of us in chairs was close enough to see her place the needles. But she finished with a triumphant flourish because she beat the clock. Which leads me to a third truth, this one about kink-education demos: what is being demonstrated is never what the instructor says it is. That “teacher” demonstrated self-absorption, indifference for her partner, and the implicit belief that leathersex is all about personal achievement. Nobody left knowing how to use needles, but people walked out thinking they knew what it should look like from a distance.

My education in leather, such as it was, happened not in classrooms but in relationship. The men who helped me learn how to do what I wanted — and often, what they wanted done to them — had an investment in my getting it right. And they liked me. If you think about the essential things you do every day, isn’t it the same? How did you learn to brush your teeth, comb your hair, shave or put on makeup? How to ride a bike, wipe your ass, shell a hard-boiled egg, how to give a blowjob? (Which I’m sure can cause nerve damage if done incorrectly.) Somebody who loved you showed you the first time, or the first few, and you took it from there. It wasn’t an experience of “education.” It was the experience of a trusted relationship guiding you toward your health, your independence, your goals and desires. And aren’t those lowly activities more like what we do in leather than Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish 101?

It’s not that the classroom is good for nothing. It’s just no good for the way we typically use it. The traditional classroom is great for storytellers, performers, gifted lecturers; for town-hall discussions; for conveying specialized information, facts, with visual aids. I learned a lot in Driver Ed, about motor-vehicle law, braking distances, internal-combustion engines. What I did not learn in class was how to drive.

All these things went through my mind as I talked to Troy. My troubled relationship with the idea of leather “education.” My private conviction that our concept of it took a wrong turn somewhere in the 1980s (like so much else). My equally strong conviction that the Leathermen’s Discussion Group could work. I’d seen it work. I didn’t know why it worked when it still worked, but I wanted to try and figure it out.

Helpful friends advised that hot demo programs showing hot sexy stuff would pack the room again. Problem is, I looked back and that’s what LDG had been doing: saline infusion, pumping, CBT, bondage, fucking machines. I do believe that demos have their place (more about that in a minute), but once you’ve run the gamut of the fundamental, what, twelve or fifteen — then what? Start over? Does it ever feel to you like demos are just an endless loop?

I don’t know how to run an organization, but my friend Brian had management and PR experience, and I thought he might. All I wanted to do was the programming. So together we took on LDG. Our first program was attended by four men. Three, after one got indignant and stormed out. Our second program drew about ten. The third month we had the writer of DemonicSex Comics, a hot, honest, beautifully twisted guy who laid himself bare for us. We had about thirty men that month. Fakir Musafar, Jim Ward, Mollena Williams, Peter Fiske came and bared their souls for us too. Peter did a whip scene with my slave so instantaneous and profound it took your breath away.

Then came July and Dore Alley and our panel discussion “Is Leather Dead?” with Guy Baldwin, Race Bannon, Gayle Rubin and Michael Thorn. Brian thought we might have a big turnout, so with the help of Folsom Street Events, we rented a big room in the LGBT Center. Which had the good grace to look the other way when over 300 people showed up. Thankfully, nobody called the fire marshal.

We outgrew our old meeting room and Mr S. offered us a new space that seated 100 or more. Now every month we’re at or over capacity there too. The resurgence of LDG is not my doing: let me say that straight up. There’s been a happy confluence of factors in my local men’s community that’s made us stronger and more cohesive than we’ve been in decades.

What I can say is that my little experiment in leather education didn’t fail. It showed me some things I didn’t know about teaching and learning, and confirmed a few things I’d always suspected. I’d like to finish by telling you about seven of those lessons.

1. The experience of our coming together in numbers is more important than what we came together to learn— and more educational too. Very few of us who were at our “Is Leather Dead?” discussion could tell you what the panelists said. But none of us will forget laughing at the same jokes, applauding or booing the same remarks; that sense of shared values, and a shared experience of them; the understanding that what was happening between us in that room was the answer to the question.

2. I believe we learn by experience and no other way. Not being a cognitive scientist, I can’t offer you proof, but I am not able to disprove the proposition either. Imagine a yoga class, a drawing class, in which all you did was watch and listen. Preposterous. You need the experience in your body and in your consciousness. I’m using the term “by experience” here in the broadest sense. Physical, emotional, sensory, psychological, aesthetic, even spiritual experience are our greatest — and I think our only — teachers. Poets, performers, shamans, artists can kickstart our learning because of their power to make us feel, to awaken in us an experience of the subject; to inspire us to want to know more and become self-teachers. And yes, there are those rare private experiences of enlightenment, when suddenly the answer to a problem we have wrestled with or to a gap in our knowledge drops into our laps, out of a tree or a book or from the lips of another person. Those moments are impossible to plan, by their nature. But our concept of education seems overwhelmingly to presume that those moments will happen while we’re lined up in chairs watching someone get poked or paddled.

3. Decide who your audience is and be faithful to them. There’s a huge divide in leather and kink more real and more consequential than the age-old divisions between gays and straights, men and women, Old Guard and no Guard. I’m talking about the unbridgeable gap between players who seek sexual connection with partners and those who employ the apparatus of kink to keep sex at bay. If what I consider the means is what you consider the end, then our teaching and learning will be at cross-purposes. LDG is for men who like sex with other men who like sex. We like it in a house. We like it with a mouse. We like it in the rain. We like it on a train. We like it here and there. We like it anywhere! Those are my peeps, that’s who I’m working for.

Yes, we have a small but loyal following of women and straight guys who say they benefit from what we do. They know we’re not going to tailor presentations to them, and they’re good with that. They don’t want us to. So I don’t plan programs for the sex-avoidant. We all know what those look like: complicated demos with fire and very sharp things and pulleys on the ceiling. The technical ante is upped because the play’s not a prelude or a vehicle to anything. No doubt both the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of the rollercoaster can make the spirit soar, but neither the journey nor the destination is the same.

4. Our kind of learning happens most organically in the context of a relationship. Skills can be taught — just not the way we’re doing it. Mentoring and peer-education models are manifestly superior to the “classroom” approach we default to. The LDG Mentorship Program we started in March, led by Dr Richard Sprott, may be the most potent and valuable project we’ll ever undertake. And peer education brings into play the sometimes unformed but always developing relationship we have with others of our community. Last month one of our board members launched an event he called “Whips in the Park.” Over twenty men showed up that first Sunday to throw their snake whips, signal whips, bullwhips in the bee-spangled sunlight of Dolores Park. It’s a safe bet that none of those guys would trade that afternoon for a dozen classroom presentations on the singletail.

I work with another Bay Area project called Leather Traditions. We average about one program a year, devoted to authority-based relationships, M/s and D/s. Three programs ago we noticed it always seemed to be the same people registering. Obviously they liked us. Weren’t they telling their friends? Were we just “educating” the same thirty or forty men and women over and over? I would suggest that those faithful attendees attribute the excellence of their learning experience not just to us or to our presenters, but to the comfort and familiarity of being in the same room with each other, again and again.

5. The presenter is more important than whatever you say the topic is. In 2011, I asked Mark Frazier to come and close out our year with any program of his choosing. Breath Play, he decided. Naturally, the safety police were roused from their slumber, Jay Wiseman was quoted at length, guys grumbled “Who cares about breath play?” — and to tell you the truth, I don’t. But I do care about Mark Frazier, who has to be one of the finest, most authentic, most resourceful leathermen who ever lived. Watching him negotiate and bond with his demo partner, seeing the mixture of fun and solicitude in the way Mark handled him, hearing Mark’s blunt assessment of the safety issues: these were the real lessons conveyed. At the end of the night, this group of guys who didn’t care about breath play formed a double line leading out the door and down the stairs for a chance to have Mark Frazier put them in a headlock and make them pass out. No lie.

6. A leatherman’s story is his most valuable asset, the most powerful truth he has to tell — or to teach. And I have to believe the same is true for leatherwomen. Recent calls for BDSM teacher training and certification make me want to cry. The creation of an entire class of kink teachers armed with better classroom tricks seems to me an advance in a catastrophically wrong direction. Come on. What we’re doing now in our conferences and workshops is working so well, turning out such a superior breed of kinkster, that all we need to do is standardize it? Is becoming one of us really so similar to becoming a medical assistant or a flight attendant?

I’ve been working with a wonderful guy named Erik Will, who took over as LDG Chairman in March. I heard someplace that the first thing you should do after accepting a leadership role is to identify your successor, so I zeroed in on him. He’s fairly new to the community, but he’s a fast learner. In fact, if you know Erik, you know he’s fast in every way. A couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, he said to me, “Do you think we could ever get Laura Antoniou to do a program?” I wonder if his parents were ever prouder of him than I was right then. He didn’t want Laura because of her classroom skills, formidable as those may be. He didn’t want to watch her do CBT. He’s impressed with who she is and what she’s created in the world and he wants to know more. It took Laura about three minutes to say yes.

7. If we must demo, then let us demonstrate values, not “skills.” Demos for instruction between people who hardly know each other are boring. Yes, with showmanship, they can become entertaining, but for the wrong reasons: What It Is That We Do is not performance art. Watching seasoned, committed players in the dungeon will always be more educational because of the values that inform their play: care, humor, understanding, trust, tenderness, lust, sadism, communication. Of all the values we could conceivably choose to demonstrate in our teaching, technical proficiency has to be the most trivial. And the classroom method by which we communicate it is mostly an exercise in passivity for the student and in self-promotion for the “teacher.”

I know what you’re thinking. “People love our demos. Newcomers flock to our demos!” I’m sure they do. But what newcomers say they want to learn is almost never what they need to learn. They’re almost always parroting the priorities driven into them by the most plodding Kink 101 sources: technique and safety.

Well, in the immortal words of Miss Jean Brodie, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first.” If goodness, truth and beauty do not animate our play, our relationships, our teaching and our learning too, then I have no fucking idea what we are about. The Religious Right is correct about one thing: values do belong in the classroom. (But not theirs.) Education is fundamentally about values. How can anything be taught without some cultural agreement about what is important to know? About what is true and what is beautiful and what we aspire to? Let us name those things. Let us elevate them. The rollercoaster people, the performance-art tribe, the 50 Shades crowd will not agree with us about what they are, but it’s okay to leave them behind. That is their comfort zone. And once we understand what we have that’s worth learning, please, let us have a little more humility about what we teach, and a greater respect for it.

Thank you.

Patrick MulcaheyLeather Reign11/10/12

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