Fair Energetic Exchange: Destigmatizing the Needs of Community Leaders, Presenters and Volunteers

On Saturday, April 13th,I was honored to give the afternoon keynote speech at the Kink LINCS Conference in Seattle, WA. This 3-day leadership conference for kink, leather, and other alternative sexual communities covered a range of topics, all of whom boiled down to LINCS: Lead – Inspire – Network – Connect – Succeed. Though writing the keynote was a challenge, getting on stage before the audience was even harder. I was speaking to people who had been leaders within these populations for years long before I ever walked into my first party 15+ years ago. But I steadied my nerves, breathed deep, and was grateful for the experience.

Video and audio of the proceedings were recorded, and I hope to have them up once they are available

Did you enjoy the Keynote?  Consider making a donation to Lee or buying him a gift, clicking the links on the left-hand side of the page.

The following was the original speech… the actual speech was minimally modified from the below written work.

***

It is quite an honor to be here this afternoon, speaking with all of you.

Before I begin, I want to take a moment to show my appreciation to the amazing crew who has made this event what it is. The organizing committee, the volunteer crew, the passionate fundraisers, the administrative perverts, the delightful donors, the generous sponsors, and everyone else who puts so much time, energy and other resources into everything here. You have pulled together quite the motley band of merry misfits and delightful deviants into one place, and I think quite a number of brain babies, as I like to think of them, will be birthed thanks to everything you have given to the endeavor. Thank you so much for all of your blood, sweat and tears… and perhaps other body fluids as well, who knows.

Not long ago, I was at KinkFest in Portland, Oregon, as were a number of you who are here this afternoon. I have been teaching at KinkFest on and off since 2003, and have been astounded by its growth and transformation over the years. When I first got involved it was held at Ace of Hearts, a swingers club with labyrinthine twists and turns, classes on power exchange held with students stacked on top of students on the orgy beds. The pool table upstairs was converted into a bondage bed with bodies writhing in a constant stream of desire, and we had long dialogues around whether playing in the hot tub was really a sanitary choice.

Since then, KinkFest has radically changed in its outward presentation. Orgy bed lectures have been replaced with conference center classrooms. Thousands of square feet of professionally constructed play equipment fill in for that pool table bondage bed.

On Sunday night this year, a friend of mine and I wandered the play area together. The bulk of the attendees had left, but the folks who were still there were locked in passionate conversations and intense erotic exploration. Moans echoed around the expansive room, forms of all shapes and sizes truly enjoying one another. Amidst all of this, my friend looked over to one of the scenes and quietly stated that it was nice to see some of the volunteers getting a chance to play.

I agreed with her. So often I see people enlist in the army of behind the scenes sweat equity, the people that load in and out play equipment, work the registration desk, and flip spaces between classes work their asses off, and you know what? Many of them don’t even get a chance to take a peek at the projects they gave so much to. My brain dances with memories of education coordinators telling me that they never got a chance to attend any of the classes they poured hundreds of hours into putting together. Munch organizers saying that they rarely got to get to really know anyone at their own munch because they were doing the speed-welcomes for people who were new to the community. Contest producers mourning the loss of their chance to cruise anymore because they were backstage making sure that a line of leathermen were ready to go on stage to do yet another roman gladiator fantasy.

Every single one of us got involved in leadership, teaching and volunteering for different reasons. Perhaps it was because you were pissed off that an event you went to was so disorganized and you wanted to do it better. Someone, we believed, needed to step to do this shit because clearly no one else was doing it. Maybe we were new to the Scene, and wanted a chance to get to know folks, or connect on a deeper level to what felt like “our people.” It might be that you already had mad skills in communication, business management or bookkeeping in your life at large, and saw a chance to give your tools to the new group you are part of.

Some of us got into relationships with someone who is already a leader in the community, and were sucked into their orbit and influence.  There are those who became leaders to create an opportunity to find a place in the center of attention within our kinky commonwealth. Guilt and shame fuel some, bullied by their peers into “giving back” to those around them, while some of us fear that if we do not give back in a leadership capacity we will not be accepted by our peers who hold such roles.

Some are called to organizing, producing and curating our history because it echoed in our souls. We had a chance to leave a thumbprint upon the clay of the lives and community we cherish, becoming part of the lineage before us. And of course some of us do this stuff because we want to play with new folks, make a party we actually want to attend, or bring in a presenter who will teach that one thing we want to learn. Good on you. I personally believe that a lot of great stuff can happen if we are motivated by our bodily desires, not just our intellectual beliefs.

Keeping our roles as leaders sustainable can be supported by understanding our FEE. FEE stands for Fair Energetic Exchange, a term that was introduced to me by sexuality and spirituality educator Del Tashlin. A Fair Energetic Exchange is when we got what we need out of the encounter to feel good about the experience, as well as not feeling taken advantage of or drained.

There is often an assumption that this makes every act of giving into a transactional encounter. Most of the time, this is not the case, or at least it is not the case on a conscious level. We do not tend to think of wanting our group to say thank you to us for sending out announcement emails to every week as being some sort of exchange of energies. However, if we do this work for months on end and no one thanks us, we can feel taken advantage of and drained.

I think most of us can think of those times we have served our community in some way and our FEE was not met.

Each person has different things that can lead to a sense of fair energetic exchange. They may be based on tangible compensation. Receiving an honorarium can defray the costs of attendance and involvement, whether it covers travel, housing, or in some cases paying rent and living costs at home (or god forbid health care) for someone whose role as a leader is their full-time career. It might be vending opportunities, food that can keep bodies running, or swag and gifts that show love and appreciation. That swag, in some cases, can also give people bragging rights – that *they* were staff at *that* event.

Staff tags at events can lead to a degree of community celebrity, which is a form of acknowledgement and energy building. For some people, event work and holding board positions can also help build a résumé within our world or in the world at large.  It might also build life-experience – chances travel to new cities, do new stuff, meet new people, and learn new things.

Other forms of compensation are interpersonal. Quality time with friends, opportunities to connect with lovers, or being spoiled rotten. I once attended an event where they could not do much financial compensation, but asked what else might make the exchange feel fair. As a joke, I said I would love a dozen fresh-baked cookies and a sex slave for the weekend. The cookies were waiting there for me when I got into my hotel room. As I settled in, the education coordinator asked if I could follow her. She took me down to the security headquarters and clapped her hands together. The Boys leapt to their feet, and she asked me which one I wanted. I blinked and said “Really?” They all nodded their heads enthusiastically. It was quite a delightful weekend.

Getting laid or getting to play, is sometimes looked down upon as a form of compensation, even within our own community. In the world at large you aren’t supposed to be a President of a board of trustees and fuck those you are fund-raising for. There is equal story about the fact that people should not be “ordered” to be leaders by their partner, that that is a form of abuse or coercion. This carry-over from outside our community devalues the resources and gifts granted within power exchange relationships, and the sense of joy received from those who are serving their dominant partner.

Within that concept we also have our emotionally fulfilling experiences. Feeling good about ourselves and getting a chance to do a job well-done can be empowering, as can helping out a person or group we believe in. I know a number of people who live for the words “Good Boy,” “Good Girl,” or “Thank you Sir.” They are seen in their identity, acknowledged for their work, and shown respect for the energy they contributed.

Though, as a sidebar from the bulk of this conversation… I will say that there are some folks in our community who find their FEE through the opportunity to bitch about how badly they are treated… rather than doing anything to address the issue.

For the rest of us though, the challenge is that when we look at helping everyone find a sense of fair energetic exchange – there seems to be a belief that the golden rule applies. It does not. I ask you to stop using it, now. The Law of Reciprocity is a fallacy. Do not do unto others as you want them to do unto you. Do unto others as they want done unto themselves.

I find that so often we end up treating each other as if we are mechanical systems that have the same input to output systems as one another. We certainly don’t assume that someone shares our same sexual predilections. Why are we assuming that someone else will feel fairly compensated with the same thing? What may be something “little” to us may feel like a lot to them… and vice versa. We seem to believe that we should be working towards equality, when it makes more sense to be working towards equity and fairness.

Imagine if you will that three instructors are trying to get to a weekend conference they have been asked to teach at. If we are working with an equality-based model, each instructor is given an event entrance and $150 honorarium to for their travel and other needs. The first lives a few blocks away, and can walk to and from the event. The second can drive from a state or two away. The third normally works that Saturday and Sunday, and has to hire a babysitter to take care of the kids.

In this scenario, the $150 gets pocketed by the first instructor, the second breaks even on the gas money and road snacks, and the third ends up a few hundred in the hole even with the honorarium. Equality does not work, especially when we look at the disenfranchised communities that are not able to enter into many of the roles of leadership that they might otherwise want to step into. It is not that these populations want “more” compensation, it is that a different level of compensation is necessary to meet their needs.  Not wants. Needs.

Not everyone who wants to be a title holder has money to spend on a year’s worth of required travel, and to infer (or outright state) that there is something wrong with that person creates profound stigma. Not everyone has access to vehicles to drive to the venue where your meetings are taking place, and stigmatizing them is emotionally painful. Not everyone can get up the flight of stairs where they would work the check-in desk, and saying that it’s a “really easy venue to get to” for “everyone” infers that they are not part of “everyone.” It infers that they are not considered part of the community in the same way.

There is no shame in having needs, whether our needs are a wheelchair ramp, having our pronouns respected, being able to walk to our car alone without requiring a “big guy to walk us out”, or feeling safe in a space without fear of being subjected to outright racist performances. It is horrifying that these concepts are “special needs” that our community has to “go out of our way” to accommodate.

Whether asking for common courtesy or a few extra bucks to catch a bus, many in our community are unable to step fully into their leadership roles because of a lack of empathy. Not sympathy, where people are given the lip service of having people feel sorry for them. Empathy – the notion that we understand what they are experiencing. Because if we get it, if our body’s mirror neurons are firing off saying that we see ourselves in their journey – we would not allow sexism, racism, ablism, and a bevy of other isms to go unchecked in our community.

Instead, these needs are stigmatized. We hand out awards to those who “give so much” to the community, who fly all over the place, rather than acknowledge that they work for the airlines. Let’s grant these individuals the recognition they deserve because they are amazing presenters and fantastic activists – not because they are people who have fewer or different needs. To laud them otherwise creates a division between the “haves” and “have nots.” We say, silently (or very loudly in some cases), that having a different need for fair energetic exchange is selfish. But you know what? Being selfish is a profound and beautiful practice of learning to acknowledge ourselves and our truths. If more of us were selfish for just a moment, we would build a far more self-aware world.

Our needs can also be affected by what we are really being asked to give. When asked to give more and more, we can be pushed far beyond what we originally agreed to, or what we have the capacity to give. The exchange becomes far from fair. Because of a desire for acceptance, we forget, or push away the fact, that we can safeword. Some of us swallow down our emotions, saying “yeah, that is fine,” but get pissed off later, or slowly crumble inside in a puddle of self-loathing. We try to change our needs so that whatever we get is okay. This behavior leads to us numbing out our emotional experience, and the truth is that when we numb one emotion, such as frustration, we numb other emotions as well, such as bliss.

Pushing others to say it is okay can also create pain and suffering… and not in a sexy way. This is consent violation at a leadership level, and we are doing it to each other. Our community is doing it to our community leaders, and our community leaders are doing it to each other.

It has become so easy to do so in a culture where our shame around having needs is so profound. As Brené Brown says in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection”:

“Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.”

And she continues, speaking of her own life experience:

“…but now, I understand how I derived self-worth from never needing help and always offering it.”

Our self-applied labels in the kink communities exacerbate the issue. Service-people think they “should” live up to the needs of others, or Tops and Dominants believe they “should” be strong enough to do what is needed. We, and our peers who hold up mirrors for us, end up “should”ing all over us.

Jackson Rainer, PhD, points out that stigma is rooted in the concept of “normalcy.” If someone has different needs than us, we ask what is “wrong” with them. He states that this leads to a ripple effect where the stigmatized person has those needs dismissed, along with feeling rejection from the group, rude comments, embarrassment, and discrimination. They can also feel abnormal, ashamed, excluded, and even worthless. In our own communities, I have seen these behaviors tear us apart in the forms of rage, blame, grief, resentment and exclusion.

It is time to address not just that ripple effect, but the stones thrown into the water that are causing those ripples in the first place. Too often we are trying to treat the symptoms, like having an event coordinator snap at their registration staff, by saying they just need to take a few hours off to go grab food. Though this addresses the immediate symptoms, there are bigger issues involving the FEE of everyone involved. Remember, fair energetic exchange is not only about how someone is compensated, but what they are giving in the first place. And a lot of producers find themselves biting off far more than they originally thought they were going to chew.

There is also the issue that different tasks have different levels of difficulty for different individuals. One person may find a specific task easy, while another person may find it excruciatingly difficult. Writing an event announcement, for example, may take one person a few minutes of quick creativity, while it takes another a few hours of careful crafting to get it to where they feel comfortable to have it go out to their constituency.

Developing compassionate awareness of what each person it truly giving with different activities can help us build our communities into somewhere people actually want to serve. When we are told things like “what took you so long?” or “why can’t you give more?” it can lead to a slow toxic leak or outright explosions. Both of these cause harm to the community and the leader alike, neither of which creates greatness for our tribe as a whole. These insidious offhanded comments often come from individuals who themselves are suffering under the burden of an energetic transaction that has left them drained, and in pain.

Let’s give each other as leaders the ability to show transparency without being seen as weak. To share how much work goes into what we are doing, not just stating “oh, that wasn’t much.” When we say such things, people perceive that we are not doing much, and thus have no awareness of what we are truly doing for them, or why taking on more might be challenging. On the flip side, many of us seem to take on more and more and more, with a seemingly limitless capacity to do it all.

But the reality is that we are human. We are not the Atlas’s that we or our community paint us to be. If we are trying to run ourselves on empty, we are destroying our engines. To speak up for our needs we need to build a sense of worthiness. We need to believe we are worthy of having our needs met, and worthy of our right to say no.

Let me repeat that. We are worthy of the right to say no. We are worthy of having our needs met.

If we believe we are not worthy of having our needs met, or are not currently having our needs met, we are more likely to deny the needs of others, or be resentful of those who are getting their needs met. This feedback loop has become insidious, and it has spread like a disease throughout our community. This system where we are shamed for our needs, internally or externally, has lead us to shaming others.

The good news is that though there are emotional toxins in our environment, there are anecdotes as well. In the polyamory community there is a notion of compersion – where a person feels joy for their partner getting their needs met outside of their relationship. As leaders, building compersion, as well as compassion, leads to an environment where everyone can get their needs met without shame. In “Field Notes on a Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness,” Marc Ian Barasch reminds us that:

“Compassion isn’t simply opening a spigot and coating everything in a treacly, all-purpose goo. It requires a gut hunch that whatever I do unto others, I do unto myself.”

This work of compersion and compassion takes courage. As we build compassion for others, and the courage to stand up for their needs, we create an environment where they can stand up for our needs in turn. However, to have someone stand up for our needs requires knowing our own needs internally, and then the courage to acknowledge those needs and communicate them to others. Expecting our community and fellow leaders to be psychic does not help bring those needs come to life.

Having the courage to share those needs, the ability to say “no,” or the capacity to say “let me think about this,” is not only about *you.* It is about building a culture where others can have a chance to say no, or let me think about it, without being shamed. However, courage is a muscle we need to build. As the theologian Mary Daly said:

“It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”

Sometimes, when faced with a choice of having an organization we care profoundly about fold, or getting our needs met, feeling like we have to choose can feel excruciating. Our courage can waver. I encourage every single one of us to take the time to process what our core needs actually are. Find the tools you need to assess those issues, not for if those questions come, but for when they will come. Invest in some good journals. Learn meditative practices that will clear your mind. Build up peership amongst friends or other leaders who will “get” the choices you need to make. Find sounding boards who have no stake in the outcome.

When we use these tools, let’s take some time to remember why we are serving as leaders in the first place. Even if what you need now is to have your travel costs for meetings covered and be given a chance to go to all of the group parties, it is likely not why you originally wanted to be the club secretary. Ask yourself whether your FEE is about having funds as a form of compensation, or whether some sort of alternative might serve you. Sometimes creativity to craft a fair exchange will be discovered – and sometimes you will find that the original vision is what you truly need to stick to your guns on.

Remember that every single leader in your club got involved in leadership for a different reason. Asking them why they got into this stuff can build humanity between us. And you know what? It is a lot harder to stigmatize the needs of other humans when we have looked in their eyes and hearts. When we are aware of their humanity, their complexity, and their truths.

This same approach can be taken as we create space for the next generation of leadership in our communities. Help them figure out why they want to become leaders, and help them assess what would feel fair for them energetically. Don’t encourage our new generation, or the current generation for that matter, to compare their needs of others. To do so lifts others up onto pedestals… and it can be really uncomfortable for any of us to fall from such heights.

We deserve a culture where we listen to each other. Not listen as a way to wait for the other person to be done so that we can talk, but one where we practice active listening skills and make sure that we understand what someone wants, why they are hurting, and what would help them be a better leader for all of us.

We deserve a culture where we creatively meet the needs for a fair energetic exchange for each of us, not assuming that everyone has the same needs, wants and desires.

We deserve a culture where we have compassion for one another, and compassion for our own journey.

We deserve a culture where we respect ourselves, respect our fellow leaders, respect those that we serve.

We deserve a culture of consent, where leaders have as much right to consent as everyone else.

As we do this, we will be able to lead with grace, inspire with courage, network with passion, create something truly amazing, and succeed at crafting our dreams into reality.

Because each of us, like the volunteer with his lover bent over a spanking bench, deserves to have our needs met.

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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.

5 Comments:

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. It’s put words around where a lot of my bitterness and frustraition as an organizer tends to come from, and given me a lens through-which I can see what I need to do (or ask for) in order to prevent that from happening again.

  2. This was a fantastic followup to Race’s keynote on Friday. And it was an invaluable primer for those who attended my Anti-oppression and Allyship in Power-based Communities session immediately following.

    It is my hope that people read deeply into what you have written and begin to recognize/act on the ways in which fairness and equity beyond the consent shared between and among agreeable souls is absent.

    The lateral and micro-violence we perpetrate on each other must be identified and addressed if Race’s proposal of a National Coming Out Day is to be successful and safe.

    Lady !Kona
    NubianImp

  3. Thank you Lee, so very well said.

  4. This keynote is brilliant. Thank you for sharing it. This is inspiring.

  5. Wow, just wow. If only I’d heard it in person and benefited from your tone and inflection. Thank you! This reminded me why I began the leadership track and my wiifm (what’s I’m it for me). Huge love!

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