Pro-sex, and anti-prison, but what about kink?

Sarah Stein Lubrano
August 7, 2014

San Francisco’s pride parade is likely the most famous in the  world, but this year it was disrupted by controversy and even a few  arrests as members of the radical group ‘Gay Shame’ protested against  the heavily promoted kink party ‘Prison of Love.’ The party had been  advertised as a chance to ‘get incarcerated,’ and one blurb read, ‘Grab  your spot on the bunkbed and party in the prison yard with hot inmates,  guards, bad boys, bitches, and muscle boys!’ In response, Gay Shame  spread their own message across town on colorful posters.  ‘While trans  women and gender nonconforming people of color are kidnapped, tortured,  brutalized and murdered by the prison industrial complex, KINK.COM and  SF PRIDE © have once again turned these practices into a joke,’ the  publicity read. ‘On June 28th as hordes of white gays dance  the night away to the deep thump of domination, GAY SHAME calls on  everyone to pull the fire alarms and shut this fucking shit down;  because PRIDE © is a nightmare, prisons are not sexy, and boycotting is  not enough.’

During Pride, or rather in the early hours of the day after (July 29th),  Gay Shame reported that a protest of  ‘several hundred’ against the  party led to protestors being ‘clubbed, tackled, bloodied, and beaten’  and at least seven arrests, with four immediate releases and three  protestors released several days later.[1]  A spokesman in turn claimed that these protestors had grown  violent, attacking partiers and security guards. The events are still  disputed, although no charges were ultimately filed.

Gay Shame is deeply, self-consciously, and fiercely  anti-assimilation, placing itself in direct opposition to the mainstream  American left wing. They feel that the remarkable successes of the  mainstream gay rights movement have simply made the gay community into a  version of the straight community that used to exclude them:  conformist, capitalist, and otherwise in alignment with oppressive  social forces. (The group’s unusual name is intended as a blunt  antithesis to the mainstream movement, Gay Pride). Their website’s  official statement reads, ‘We seek nothing less than a new queer  activism that foregrounds race, class, gender and sexuality, to counter  the self-serving ‘values’ of gay consumerism and the increasingly  hypocritical left. We are dedicated to fighting the rabid  assimilationist monster with a devastating mobilization of queer  brilliance.’ In this case, the group quite aptly points out the deep  influence of capitalism—the prison party’s advertisement flashes half a  dozen sponsors in its advertisement video, while the sponsors of the  prison-industrial complex are only a little more subtle.

Yet not all of Gay Shame’s attack is so clearly ideologically  grounded. A trickier issue at stake—largely unmentioned in anything the  group writes—is that the prison is perhaps one of the most common kink  themes of all, involving restraints, degradation, humiliation, and power  play. It is certainly true that the organizers of San Francisco’s pride  parade, as well as the owners and managers of, might be  running a capitalist enterprise with their party. But should they, for  the sake of their concerns about real prisons, avoid a theme that  features so prominently in the fantasies of sexual minorities? If Gay  Shame seeks to foreground sexuality, it seems they do not mean the  sexuality of these kinky partygoers. When I emailed them about the  topic, I received a (perhaps intentionally?) misspelled and  ungrammatical but on-message response:

Gay Shame is pro-sex and pro-kink, but anti-kink.comwhich is a horrid corporation, not a sexual practice.

Their party was not a sex or kink party, but a multimillion dollar  circuit party that has the same theme all over the world. Kink,com is  not about sexual liberation but about capitalism, they have a history of  exploitating their workers, futher gentrifying the Mission all in the  name of being the largest porn company in the world.

When I asked the group to comment on the acceptable place for kink  and whether a non-capitalist prison party would be acceptable, I  received no further response.

Gay Shame is not completely alone in their awkward handling of the  issue. Kink—a more all-encompassing term for various less-than-standard  sexual practices than the popular term BDSM (Bondage, Discipline,  Domination, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism)—tends to play with the  heebie-jeebies of even the open-minded and radical. This is because very  often, kinky sexuality relates to precisely the kind of images and  narratives that would deeply offend both mainstream and radical  left-wing people if realized outside of sexual fantasy and sexual play.  Some second-wave feminists, for example, could never fully agree about  whether kink was a positive exploration of female sexuality or a re-creation of patriarchal power  dynamics. Even within the now-popular ‘sex-positive’ framework of  feminism and queer activism, it seems simple to say that people’s sexual  orientations should be accepted until their orientation plays with  oppression itself. This is the sticking point in such a framework—and so  common in many ideologies—where the very core of the philosophy, in  this case, that people’s sexual proclivities should be accepted no  matter what, comes back around to bite itself on the tail.

Thus, in a perhaps surprising turn of events, a large capitalist  organization arguably dealt with a question of sexual difference more  elegantly than the radical fringe. The CEO of, Peter Acworth,  penned a lengthy response  on his blog. Acworth, who was abandoned a PhD at Columbia University to  build his pornography empire, writes almost like a clearer version of  Judith Butler. He asks his readers to consider that:

Though players may wear a uniform or use language that is  traditionally representative of cultural authority, they do so with the  understanding that this play queers that representation and alters its  meaning. The wearing of uniforms and the use of the tools of authority  as sexual props has long been a means through which some members of the  queer community have protested and reclaimed the symbols of oppression. I  ask you to consider the idea that the use of the prison industrial  complex as a party theme does not trivialize the experiences of the  oppressed, but trivializes the assumed authority of the oppressor.

Thus far, Acworth’s response has been the most coherent vision from  either side of the debate of what kinky sexuality is like, and why it is  politically acceptable. This suggests that Gay Shame and similar groups  will need to provide a coherent alternative to ‘mainstreaming.’ In  order to do this, they must develop a more defined viewpoint about how  sexual fantasies fit in with real-life oppression, one that makes the  problem with prison themes clearer. Perhaps they will turn directly to  the prisons themselves, rather than their ironically and  questionably-subversive sexual depictions. Then the group’s claim of  being ‘pro-kink’ would also hold more water.


[1]  The Irony Of Police Brutality On Those Protesting Police Brutality Is,  Of Course, A Brutal Banality Here As In So Many Protests.

All by
Sarah Stein Lubrano