Outside the bedroom, BDSM practitioners can't take punishment

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to writer Violet Blue. The words should have been attributed to a performer Blue quoted in her column. SF Weekly regrets the error.

America's invincible army of omnipotent Gordon Gekkos has been supplanted by corporate-excuse-making Timothy Geithners. Once-triumphant U.S. generals muddle through wars they'd supposedly long since won. Even one-time dark site overlord Dick Cheney has morphed into a whiny, skim-latte–sipping semanticist endlessly mewling his favored wimpish term: "enhanced interrogation techniques."

When pondering such signs of American weakness, I used to say to myself: "Thank goodness for sadomasochism porn enthusiasts." These brave heroes are willing to be blindfolded, tied up, choked, hung by their pierced nipples, smacked, pinched on their genitals with live battery clamps, bludgeoned with chains and clubs, half-drowned, impaled with motorized nightsticks — and come back begging for more. As long as America had these hard-bitten souls among our ranks, I imagined, we'd dominate a submissive world.

At least that's what I believed until April 21, day one of the Great San Francisco S&M Whine-Fest, when seemingly tough-as-nails bondage and discipline specialists became a squawking gaggle of unwilling victims. Their supposed tyrant was a newspaper column that used the apparently verboten term "torture porn" to describe performances such as videotaped waterboarding.

"You are the one doing victimization here," the first of hundreds of outraged Web commenters wrote. "We who live in San Francisco are proud of our diversity, which includes [the] BDSM lifestyle."

The reaction splattered from Internet comments to angry columns on several local blogs, a local TV news segment documenting the pornographers' outrage, posters announcing an SF Weekly boycott, at least two T-shirts on sale condemning SF Weekly, plus dozens of articles, essays, blog posts, and other infuriated Internet flotsam demanding "accountability" for supposedly "irresponsible journalism."

Popular indignation is a columnist's price of doing business. But this particular ruckus was unique not just for its intensity and reach, but also because I never personally cast judgment on torture porn.

The column in question ["Whipped and Gagged," April 21] noted that local S&M pornographer Kink.com had finagled nearly $50,000 in employee training subsidies from the state government. After my inquiry, the state Employee Training Panel halted the funding — which Kink.com employees had used to learn to better produce and edit porn videos — because the agency didn't previously know the nature of the company's business, and its rules expressly discourage sponsoring training for pornographers. My column parsed the question: Was it right for the government to halt the porn subsidy? I quoted three pro-porn-subsidy people, one anti-porn-subsidy person, and three law professors who discussed whether the government was permitted to discriminate against pornographers.

Ubiquitous sex columnist Violet Blue devoted three different online essays, totaling 3,900 words, each complaining about a 1,320-word SF Weekly column. Blue quoted Kink performer Lorelei Lee on SFGate as saying, "I find Mr. Smith's implication that I, as a model and porn performer, have been coerced, victimized, or exploited by my job to be profoundly degrading and insulting.” But I didn't imply that Lee — or any other porn actor, for that matter — was coerced. In fact, I quoted Kink.com's chief operating officer Daniel Riedel as saying its porn was all consensual. "If it's not consensual, it doesn't work," he said.

What Blue and others were objecting to wasn't my own opinion, but the opinion expressed by someone they disagree with, feminist antiporn activist Melissa Farley. I quoted Farley to illustrate the fact that state-subsidized pornographer training might be controversial. Apparently, her point of view, which says porn is exploitative of women, is so loathsome that it's "irresponsible" to quote her.

Even more perplexing, Ms. Blue stated in a column published on SFGate that the "much larger problem emerging out of all this" was the question of whether the government's decision to cut Kink.com's subsidy merely because the company makes porn is constitutional.

Ms. Blue claimed to be refuting and denouncing me, while actually repeating my own point. I wonder: Is that properly called tortuous logic, or BDSM logic?

It was bizarre reading Ms. Blue's multiple essays denouncing an imaginary version of my column. But it was out-of-body surreal to see similar acts of fantasy role-playing repeated ad infinitum across the Internet, in the streets, and in my e-mail inbox. A recurring theme said I had a "prudish" take on S&M porn, and my sensibilities therefore didn't belong in San Francisco.

The funny thing is, I don't really care if people do this kind of porn. I have no aversion to pornography in general, and that's why I didn't condemn it in the column.

But it was a legitimate — and funny — news story that a state agency was paying to train S&M pornographers. I used the word "torture" in that story because it's a realistic way to describe people being strapped to a table and shocked on their genitals.

Judging from the response, a lot of people with the guts to withstand clubs and electrode punishment have thin skin when it comes to tolerating anything but the PC jargon term "BDSM." Even wimpier was a line of critique that said I should not have revealed Kink.com's state subsidy because agency officials' decision to rescind it "harmed the community." It was as if any act that didn't adhere to an alternative lifestyle community's party line was somehow an attack.

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