GWNN Friday Keynote: Forgiveness and Making Change as Sexual Athletes

The following was the Friday keynote for GWNN Bash 23, which took place August 19, 2016. For those who were there, you will note that this is not the exact piece that was delivered. My hope is to have the video up in the next month. However, I wanted those interested to see the piece on forgiveness and making change – because all of us in sexuality populations are sexual athletes who have a chance to make it better… today.


GWNN Bash 23I’m really honored to be here at GWNN Bash. Can you believe this is the 23rd annual event? That is quite the accomplishment, to come back year after year – for staff, volunteers, vendors, and attendees alike.

Who is here for the first time? Welcome so much to the adventure! Have you gotten to attend some classes already? That’s wonderful!

For everyone else I want you to raise your hands. You are the people who have been here before and come back. For more classes, more parties, more connections. A chance to see old friends and make new ones.

So, which of you have been here five or more years? Who has been here ten? Fifteen? Twenty? Wow. Anyone been here for all 23? That’s amazing!

Now, as all of us get ready for this wonderful weekend, we’re all geared up for different things. But some of us are also coming to this event from a place of trepidation. A place of uncertainty.

This is completely valid too, and I want to talk tonight about why that feeling is valid, and how we can acknowledge it, and still move forward to have a great weekend.

The reason some of us are hesitant to dive in with both feet first is because things have not always gone right. Whether at a big event like this, a small party, or in the privacy of their own play, stuff has been imperfect. Sometimes in fact, it has been outright painful, damaging, or truly harmful. We try our best to keep an open mind, but for a lot of us, the wound is there, and that trepidation is us trying to not be wounded again. That, my friends, is completely reasonable.

For some of us, it is because our consent has been violated. In a study by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, 29% of the respondents reported having had their pre-negotiated safewords or limits violated in some way. 8.9% of respondents said that this was some sort oral, anal, or vaginal sex. This, my friends, is because the kink community is not a utopia. It’s a core-section of the world at large.

Other times, we are tender because we’ve had some sort of miscommunication in our play that had things go off-kilter. Your partner said they wanted to get tied up, you said you wanted to tie them up – end of story, right? Well, one party thought that meant a scene that really pushed their body, and the other thought it meant doing decorative harnesses… this can either lead to serious physical harm, or a total snooze-fest, depending on the situation.

It was, at the end of the day, no one’s fault per se. Even if we negotiate in long-form paperwork and three-year interviews, it can have those moments that throw everything off-kilter. The reason why is summed up beautifully by Irish playwright and author George Bernard Shaw who said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The problem, my friends, is that we think communication happens.

The reality is that I think about concepts, they get filtered through my life experience, and come out of my mouth as words. Those words then get taken in by you, filtered through your life experience, and turned into interpretations and new concepts. What I mean by a “hard scene” for example has nothing to do with what you mean by a “hard scene.”

This can hurt even more because we live in a community that carries a myth that we spend a lot of time on communication, and therefore we will have fewer issues arise. And you know what, I think we do. I know, a moment ago I said that we are a core sample of the world at large, and we are. The reason I argue that we have fewer issues arise then there might be is because we are sexual athletes. We, my friends, are sexual Olympians!

Simone-Biles-BeamWith the Olympics getting ready to wrap up in Rio, is there anyone here who saw Simone Biles take the all-around in gymnastics?

Hell yea! She was amazing. And know what the average human can’t do? A double-flip with a half twist. Not at all. Not even a dream of it.

Know what the average sexual athlete can’t do? Single-tail their lover while they are riding a Sybian. Put needles in their lover’s breasts. Take a fist up inside them. Give a blow-job while tied up in a seemingly impossible pose.

Gymnasts do seemingly impossible things and make them look effortless. If someone falls, or lands wrong, the risk of true harm is staggering. Look at Samir Ait Said from France, who broke his leg on the landing during the men’s vault. It is because he was doing, as an extreme sports athlete, what most of us would never dream of doing. And so it is for us as extreme sexual athletes.

Even for those of you who are new, swimming laps for the first time and having no dream of ever becoming Michael Phelps. You, my friends, are getting in the water and swimming, when a staggering number of people in America can’t swim – sometimes due to desire, and more-often due to opportunity, access, inspiration, and exposure.

Now, the third reason some feel nervous about events like these, outside of these play contexts, is stuff that has been done to them that was mean, or harmful. It comes in lots of forms, from things that are outright vindictive, to stuff that was simply dickish. It comes in lots of forms, and for those of you who have received, or given, such behavior, your memories come in a lot of different forms.

Now, the fourth category is the biggest one I see. It’s people who messed up. These mess-ups come in a wide array of style and collateral damage. Perhaps it is someone who walked into the back-swing of your flogger. Maybe it was someone calling you by your scene name at the grocery store. It could be someone whose technique was poor, or who tried to dominate you in the snack area just because they knew you were a slave. It could be someone who made homophobic, fat-phobic, ableist, racist, or misogynistic comments on FetLife.

That back-swing could have been no big deal, or affected your relationship with your bottom when your return-strike accidentally hit them in the face. That accidental outing could be a funny memory, or have someone lose their job. In all of these cases, there are opportunities for educating people, and helping it not happen to someone else.

If you see someone about to walk into a back-swing, you the voyeur or onlooker can stop it, or tell them why it matters, off to the side. Instead of making that Top do it.

RudenessAs the person who walked into that backswing, this is your chance not to just blow it off with an absent-minded “sorry” but instead make actual change and build up an awareness. As another dom, you have the opportunity to tell that dickish dom why their behavior wasn’t cool, rather than make that slave have to defend themselves – yet again. We, together, as a community have a chance to make it better for everyone.

Back when I was living in Arizona, I went to a concert by the amazing Paisley Yankovitch. Don’t know who he is? That is completely reasonable. Paisley is a goth crossdressing punk musician who also happens to be a Christian proselytizer. Yup, just take that combination in for a moment.

In the middle of this concert, Paisley stopped the show and stood up straight in his fabulous dark green slip and torn fishnets, and looked each of us in the eye. He said, “Has anyone here been hurt by a Christian.” We were all dumbstruck. Did this Christian musician just ask us whether we’ve been hurt by a Christian?

Someone in the third row raised their hand. Then someone else. One at a time, each of us raised our hands. Including Paisley. “We’ve all been hurt by a Christian,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean Christ has hurt you.”

Is there anyone here who has been hurt by a kinkster, on some level?

By voicing our hurt, we have the capacity to take action, make change, empower ourselves, and move forward.

Now, I would say that the kink community as a whole hasn’t hurt you, like Paisley did, but I think there is an exception in the form of the often unconscious racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and homophobia in our community. We often carry on tales that submissive men are less-than, that people who can’t kneel aren’t really slaves, and that people over 70 are somehow less sexy.

We, you and me, have a chance, today, to make this event more welcoming. We have the capacity to learn each person’s story, rather than assume someone’s skill or experience based on how they are dressed or the years they have had on this planet. We can create a space where bi and gay men feel safe being sexy, rather than receiving an eye of disgust or distrust from their heterosexual counterparts. We can provide quality education to people of all colors, rather than stating that skin needs to be pink to warm it up, or ignoring the fact that power exchange relationships are affected by the context our cultural trauma.

7e0c2605d5a4913e55a05f8fa422924aThese issues are often unconscious; they are insidious; and they can cause harm. After all, malice is not required for harm to occur.

But, we get to take action, make change, empower ourselves, and move forward. You and me, together, get to start this change. Don’t say that our silver foxes and corseted crones having hot sex lives is somehow “cute.” Make change. Ask whether our play spaces are accessible to folks, whether by the number of stairs, or whether there is a way to get to it for those who use public transit. Take action.

We empower ourselves by empowering everyone. Today. At this conference. It’s not making the kink community better for some, it’s making it better for everyone.

Part of moving forward, by making change or educating someone, is also the act of forgiveness. I’m serious. If, ten years ago, someone walked into your back swing… why are you holding onto it? If someone said a homophobic statement 4 years ago but has since learned why it is wrong to have done so and has changed their ways… why are you holding onto it? The act of forgiveness is the act of letting go of our own suffering.

I’m not talking about forgetting. I’m talking about moving forward. If someone has shown contrition, corrected their behavior, and moved into a path in accordance with community standards – we have the capacity to let them take those steps forward. Yes, with trepidation. Yes, with uncertainty. But courage is not the lack of fear. Courage is fearing and doing it anyway. And I challenge us as a community to have the courage to heal.

That healing has a lot of factors to it, and I am not telling folks who have had their consent violated that they should “get over it.” Every person, in every community, in every circumstance, gets to make these decisions.

In the work of Dr. Jennifer Thomas in “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” she points out that forgiveness does not heal everything.

  1. Forgiveness does not remove all the consequences of wrongdoing.
  2. Forgiveness does not immediately restore trust.
  3. Forgiveness does not remove the offense from one’s memory. It does mean that you choose not to hold the offense against them.

That last one is the one I am talking about on our path as a community. It is the choice to not hold the offense against them. It is, ten years later, not perpetually telling newcomers about how so-n-so once walked into your back-swing. It is, four years on, not expecting the next thing out of the person who posted once, to be homophobic.

It is us, as individuals, as a community, moving forward.

So let’s start tonight by making change. See a volunteer struggling to open a door? Open it for them. Hear someone calling a trans person by the wrong gender? Correct them. Find two different people looking for play dates? Introduce them to each other.

After all, a lot of us are here to play, right?

To cruise? To learn? To make new friends? To see old ones?

Let’s make this event a weekend to remember from a place of love, joy, hotness, and courage.

Thank you.


Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.

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