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I'm just back from BayCon, an annual science fiction convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. I quite like cons, and I've been going to cons of various flavors for more than two-thirds of my life, though this was a bit unusual in that it was a much more businesslike trip than most of the other cons I've attended. My expenses were paid by a group of folks who really wanted to see me present (which was awesome, and I'd like to say "thank you" to the con organizers for helping make that happen), and I spent three days on various panels talking about everything from polyamory to creativity.

There's quite a lot of interesting stuff that came up during those panels, some of which I'll no doubt be blogging about for the next several days or so. One thing in particular that I want to talk about, though, concerns the way those of us who are active in alternative lifestyles tend sometimes to create and foster--sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally--an atmosphere of exclusion and ostracism that perpetuates the very same kinds of things that we claim to be working against.

One of the panels I was on concerned the topic of defining alternative relationships. Throughout the panel, several folks, both on the panel and in the audience, referred to people who are neither polyamorous nor into BDSM by terms like 'mundane' and 'muggle.'

And this is, I think, a huge problem for those of us in the kink and poly communities, or indeed in any sort of non-traditional social or relationship community.

Now, it seems to me that the problem with doing this should be self-evident. It's self-congratulatory and divisive. It creates a completely unnecessary schism. It lumps everyone who isn't into whatever we're into in together as though they are all part of one great undifferentiated lump, which is just blindingly stupid; there are lots of folks who are neither kinky nor poly but who nevertheless are anything but normal. (I'll warrant that the life of folks like James Cameron, who designed and built the world's deepest-diving submersible because he wanted to check out what was going on at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or Elon Musk, who designed and built the Falcon/Dragon successor to the Space Shuttle entirely privately on a shoestring budget because he thought that starting a private spacefaring company might be a cool thing to do for a living, are rather more interesting than the life of the average sci-fi fan even if those folks never once lift a flogger or date more than one person at the same time!) It does exactly what kinky and poly folks complain they don't want others to do to them--it judges other people based on stereotypes mostly ridiculous and assumptions mostly baseless.

And, all those things aside, it's simply bad policy.

I am a pragmatist. I tend to be less concerned with how people "should" behave and more concerned with what sorts of behaviors actually work.

And I think that every single derisive use of words like "mundane," "vanilla," "muggle," and so on actually ends up hurting the folks who use them.

The problem with describing people outside of one's community this way, aside from the fact that it's arrogant, dismissive, and inaccurate, is that it recognizes no distinctions between all those "normals." To someone who dismisses anyone not kinky or poly as a "mundane," a Unitarian who works for acceptance, sex-positivity, and compassion is no different from someone who belongs to Westboro Baptist Church, America's most well-known trolls.

And not only is that stupid, it's counterproductive. It alienates potential allies. It pre-emptively antagonizes folks who are simply neutral. It creates an us vs. them mindset which, at the end of the day, the "us" is almost certain to lose; when the "us" is a single-digit, or perhaps at the most optimistic a low double-digit, percentage of the size of the "them," fabricating an us vs. them mentality is simply bad tactics.

It is also exclusionary. A lot of folks who are poly, or kinky, or both, tend not to be part of the kink and poly communities, because this "us vs. them" mentality subconsciously shapes attitudes and opinions in ways that limit participation in the community.

When I lived in Tampa, I was for a number of years a regular host for PolyTampa, which appears to be as of this writing the longest-running polyamory support group in the country that's still ongoing.

Anyone who's been part of the community for any length of time has probably noticed that a disproportionate number of folks in the poly community tend to be geeky, middle-class, pagan, gamer...the stereotype of the "bi pagan poly gamer geek" is prevalent for a reason.

But it might not be the reason that people think.

I've watched a lot of folks talk about why the poly and kink scenes are so overwhelmingly gamer geek pagan bi (and, though it rarely gets mentioned, white and middle-class), and the explanations I hear usually fall along the lines of "Well, once you've started questioning monogamy and relationships, it follows naturally that you'd question other things, like religion and culture and stuff too. It's because we're so openminded and unconventional!"

Which, honestly, sounds like self-congratulatory horseshit to me.

There's another reason, though I think it's more subtle. It's something I think a lot of folks in the poly and kink communities are blind to; namely, that the communities are hostile to anyone who ISN'T cut from the bi pagan gamer geek cloth.

I don't think it's deliberate or malicious, mind you. (At least not usually; there are some exceptions, like one exceedingly unpleasant chap I encountered on Facebook recently who claims quite stridently that all monogamous relationships are abusive, anyone who prefers monogamy does so only because he wants to control his partners or he simply hasn't broken the brainwashing of conventional culture enough to look at relationships critically...but I digress. Not everyone in the community shares anything like those beliefs.)

During the course of the time I spent hosting PolyTampa, I noticed a fair number of people who would come to a single meeting, hang around for a bit, and then leave, never to be seen again. I also spoke to several folks who talked about being polyamorous but also about how they felt unwanted and unwelcome in the poly community, because they weren't pagan, New Age, geeky, gamers, or techies.

I don't think there's a lot of pagan New Age gaming geeks in the poly community because being poly means challenging accepted social norms about religion, hobbies, or attitudes. Quite the opposite; I think there are a lot of pagan New Age gaming geeks in the poly community because the poly community can be quite unfriendly to folks who aren't pagan New Age gaming geeks.

Now, let me be clear that (with very, very few exceptions) I don't believe it's intentional. Aside from that one unpleasant Facebook fellow, I've never encountered anyone in the poly community who would tell someone else "you're not welcome here."

However, as I've said before, any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

It doesn't matter that it's down to social incompetence more than maliciousness; the fact is, the poly and kink communities do tend to see the world in a polarizing, us vs. them light, and do often make themselves unfriendly to folks outside the pagan New Age gaming geek mold.

It's subtle--so subtle that the folks who do it are probably totally unaware that they're doing it. It happens through a process of normalization--of seeing everyone who doesn't fit the pagan New Age gaming geek mold as a "mundane," a "normal," a "muggle," part of an undifferentiated mass. It happens through tacit, rarely acknowledged expectations that if you're poly, of course that means you aren't Christian, you prefer video games to NASCAR, you have the free time and the money to meet and socialize at restaurants, you get the jargon and lingo of the geek crowd.

I've had folks come up and talk to me after poly meetings to say that they feel unwelcome because they are evangelical Christian, or because they'd rather go fishing than play World of Warcraft. Like I said, it's not intentional, it's subtle, but it shows in a thousand different ways. There are subtle little expectations, occasional barely-acknowledged disparaging remarks about all those other folks who, heh heh, just mindlessly cling to some mainstream religion instead of, you know, something more spiritually thoughtful like paganism, the offhand remarks about how the rest of the world is just stuck in the boring rut of vanilla sex... All of these things create an unmistakeable social subtext: this is who we are, and if you're not one of us, you're one of them. The Mundanes. The great boring unwashed mass of People who Just Don't Get It.

And we're cleverer than they are, oh yes. We appreciate diversity more than the mundanes do. We understand the value of being our own individual, something all those people don't. Because, you know, they're all the same. And they aren't as smart as we are, or as tolerant, or even able to challenge their own assumptions. You know, the way we can.

It seems that being subjected to unwarranted prejudice and unfounded assumptions tends to make one skilled at doing these very things to others.

During the panel, when a few of the panelists had derisively referred to non-alt people as "mundanes" and "normals" several times, I chipped in that I don't use that sort of language because I find it unnecessarily divisive and totally inaccurate. It creates a myth of "normalcy" that doesn't actually exist; the mundanes that the other panelists derided do not, in any real sense, actually exist.

After the panel, a woman approached me to say that she was Mormon and in a D/s relationship, and found the kink community to be quite hostile. The assumptions that came from her being Mormon rather than pagan--she must be politically conservative, she must be anti-gay, she must be a blind puppet of organized religion--were subtle but real to her. When people in the community assume a baseline of pagan New Age gaming geek and talk about "mundanes" and "muggles," she saw a rejection of her in that--or, perhaps, a rejection of a distorted funhouse mirror picture of her, as rife with unchallenged assumptions as any that poly or kinky people will ever be targeted with.

And that's a damn shame. We need to do better than that.


( 75 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 2nd, 2012 10:42 am (UTC)
The Other Elephant in the Room
This, thank you, is much needed discourse, and I'm happy that you have addressed the subject of self-segregation, self-limiting behavior. I'd like to link to this on my Fetlife profile, if that is all right with you?
Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: The Other Elephant in the Room
By all means, feel free!
Jun. 2nd, 2012 11:38 am (UTC)
I see some of the behaviours that you see, but I don't agree as to the cause.

(FWIW, I'm not pagan, I'm not a gamer, I'm mono in a poly relationship, I'm bi with a hetero bias and in a hetero relationship... but I am a geek ;-)).

Many BDSM/kink/poly communities are self-selecting. These communities are _social centers_ as much as they are support groups and education groups. People go to them to hangout and chat and catchup with friends and talk about anything. I've been to parties where maybe 1/3rds of the participants played, the other 2/3rds just socialised; even the playing 1/3rd needed to socialise during non-play time.

This "social" aspect leads to certain commonalities; I can't hang out and chat NFL or MLB or NBA with someone 'cos I have no points of reference, but I could chat about the latest Stross or Vinge, or Fringe or Warehouse 13... If I have nothing to talk about then I'm less likely to go to munches, less likely to make friends, less likely to become part of the group. What this means is that the newbie or outsider has a "barrier to entry", that same as with all cliques. A newbie with some commonalities will find that barrier lower than someone without.

And thus the clique self-selects and becomes even _more_ "bi pagan yadayada", making the barrier to entry even harder.

Is the barrier real? Yes. On top of that, newbies may already be suffering a large confidence deficit and failing to have commonality of interests with the clique makes it that much harder to interact.

This isn't "being unfriendly", however. It's not even a problem unique to poly/kink groups. I think every social group suffers this.

I think that once you switch your mind from "this is a poly/kink group who are into gaming/geeking/paganism" into "this is a bi-pagan-poly-gamer-geek group into kink" then it becomes clearer; these people are primarily bi-pagan-yadayada first and the kink is secondary.

Unfortunately I don't have a solution to the problem. If we divorce the social aspect from "official events" then a new group will form for the social aspects (people _like_ talking about their hobbies), and private parties will still remain closed to those outside the social group and thus "the other" will still be driven away.

Conclusion: people are a problem!
Jun. 2nd, 2012 12:21 pm (UTC)
Agreed. I've been at a few poly meetings & groups where this was discussed. It came up at BrevardPoly one time when I was there, one first timer was literally a "good ol' boy" (his own words) redneck southern NASCAR hunting & fishing enthusiast.

He noted he'd been to poly meetings before & felt unwelcome or out of place not because anyone tried to make him feel that way but simply because he had nothing in common with the people there. He talked about what he was interested in, and several of us WERE interested in some of his likes, so we made a point of talking with him (as usual at things like that small groups & conversations formed & shifted thru the night) about things he's interested in (for instance I hunt & fish too).

One thing interesting that came out of it was a major communication issue... he said he'd gone to the events before & felt out of place BUT SIMPLY NEVER SPOKEN UP! No one KNEW he felt out of place or unwelcome, and the first time he said something we all included him with no prejudice. Poly 101, COMMUNICATE and let your needs be known or they can't be met!
(no subject) - tacit - Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 2nd, 2012 12:23 pm (UTC)
Totally with you on this one. I also scent a whiff of "doing unto others what was done unto me" about the Mundanes label. "Once *I* was the dumped-on loser, but now I'm special and different and better than the mainstream world which scorned me!"
Jun. 2nd, 2012 12:27 pm (UTC)
In addition to my reply to Sweh above, I will add this... Anyone who self-identifies as a Mormon or Evangelical Christian (or for that matter a devout Muslim, Orthodox or stricter Jew, etc) but takes part in the kink or poly community has SERIOUS issues and likely some severe self-hatred going on, much as if someone homosexual identifies as part of those groups, and for the same reason... the basic structure of those belief systems is fundamentally incompatible with the practices & beliefs (widely & wildly varied as they are) of the kink & poly communities.

In fact it's no different than showing up at a meeting for devout followers of Islam & saying "Oh I'm part of this community, fully accept it, and live by & follow its beliefs... but I'm a fundamentalist Christian!" It's simply incompatible and doesn't work.

I'd say the same thing about a Mormon who identifies as a liberal Democrat... You CAN'T be both. If you identify as a practicing Mormon that means you believe in & follow the tenets of the LDS Church, and the LDS' political and social directives are fundamentally incompatible with being a liberal Democrat.

**Note I am only referring to devout followers of certain branches of the named religions, not ALL followers of such faiths. Please note I could also list other faiths that hold similar issues, but the Abrahamic trio are the best known examples.**
Jun. 2nd, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
Anyone who self-identifies as a Mormon or Evangelical Christian (or for that matter a devout Muslim, Orthodox or stricter Jew, etc) but takes part in the kink or poly community has SERIOUS issues and likely some severe self-hatred going on, much as if someone homosexual identifies as part of those groups, and for the same reason... the basic structure of those belief systems is fundamentally incompatible with the practices & beliefs (widely & wildly varied as they are) of the kink & poly communities.

See? That's precisely the sort of false normativity and divisive assumption I'm talking about.

Not every Christian denomination is the same. Not every Evangelical believes the same way the Westboro Baptist Church does. If you want to talk about specific churches and specific denominations, you might have a stronger case, but to lump all Mormons, all Evangelicals, or all conservative Jews into the same category is EXACTLY the behavior I'm talking about here.

Contrary to popular myth accepted by folks who don't actually have any real first-hand knowledge, the Mormon church does not discourage kink at all; indeed, a surprisingly high number of Mormons are kinky. And also contrary to common misperception, evangelical Christianity is not the same as Fundamentalist Christianity. Evangelism is not a synonym for Fundamentalism. Folks who don't know a lot about religion often assume that they are, for much the same reason that folks who don't know much about polyamory assume that it's all about promiscuity or folks who don't know about BDSM assume that it's all about abuse.

Indeed, "Modernist Evangelicals" are socially and politically liberal, believe that salvation is universal (much like Unitarian Universalists do), work for social justice (including equal rights for gays and lesbians), and tolerance of other faiths. If you want a less prejudicial notion of what socially progressive Evangelical Christianity looks like, I suggest you check out the book More Ready Than You Realize, by modernist Evangelical pastor Brian McLaren. McLaren made Time magazine's list of the country's 25 most influential Evangelicals, and he calls for civil rights for gays and lesbians and work for social justice and equality.
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Jun. 2nd, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC)
I think this piece is among the best you have written, and you write a lot of stuff. Please try to get a version of this published in other places for those that need to see it.


However, as I've said before, any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

This is my new favoritest phrase. So very true.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 01:52 pm (UTC)
agreed, we need to engage with nearly-agree-people
Well said ...

I would just like to add [to your unabbreviated rant] ...

We need to be able to engage with anyone fractionally-like-us ... someone who agrees-on-most-topics should not be driven away by explosive-anger-on-tangential-topics like righteous-atheist-anger-against-religion-towards-your-Mormon-interlocutor or going Credible-Hulk-on-an-SCA-type-because-they-use-the-word-"chivalry" ...

Communities grow by co-opting nearly-agree-ers on their periphery ... and shrink by driving-away the impure and imperfect.

I can understand that we-poly-people feel besieged by you're-going-to-hell theocrat-christian-types (who would legislate us into criminality) ... but historically most people are born into religious families and secularize ... they de-convert as abusive-priests or allowed-holocausts disabuse them of their belief of the Almighty-on-OverWatch.
(We seculars are notoriously childless on average, it's the religious people who have large families whom we seem to de-convert faster than they can raise)

Even priests and ministers ... and even protesters ... frequently end up secularizing ... and sometimes the protesters are performing a self-convincing-act-of-faith and may themselves be wobbly.

So we need cheerful-debaters and welcoming types who can cordially explain-and-explain-and-explain and engage-without-anger ... and without accusing a disagreer after a few sentences of not-listening or reading-comprehension-problems, ... or needless blowups on life-extension or word-use will drive off that nice Presbyterian-couple or libertarians-who-aren't-liberals or schism-with-the-party-hosting-academic-poly-couple-over-trivial-matters.

As the libertarian of the previous sentence, I have *frequent* long happy (mutual-growth+learning) debates without name-calling or reading-comprehension-insults+internet-wars with both the Presbyterian and Academic couples (and my triad gets invited to their parties and events *because* we are happy conversationalists and debaters)

We need healthy-happy-debates, not talking-on-eggshells ;-)
Jun. 2nd, 2012 02:03 pm (UTC)
*nodnod* Yep. It's similar to my feelings on all of the atheist backlash and bigoted comments about religion. "You othered me, with horrible consequences! That is wrong! So..um..I'm going to do it back!" Divisiveness and bigotry and any other shorthand for making X group subhuman is never going to make anything better. It just changes who gets stepped on next.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 02:14 pm (UTC)

See also: "We're not (cue contempt) swingers"

Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:18 pm (UTC)
Excellent essay ... though I am not so sure about "subtle," unless 20-foot pink neon qualifies.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 04:39 pm (UTC)
us vs. them
Franklin, thanks for your thoughtful blog on this interesting issue. It's an issue that needs more attention and awareness and I share your position that it perpetuates the 'normal' myth and further isolates already marginalized communities. I've observed this phenomenon in the gay community as well, and I think another cause for it is 'opposition identity' that individuals in oppressed or repressed communities develop. In her seminal book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum explores oppositional identity in the black community. Briefly summarized, it's an attitude of opposition to white people caused by oppression by the dominant white culture. It's a stage in personal development between oppression and freedom, a freedom that comes with understanding the history of the oppressed community that was has been hidden by the dominant culture, which leads to self actualization and constructive attitudes towards and engagement with the dominant culture. Thanks for helping to push our marginalized community in the direction of fuller understanding and constructive engagement with the dominant culture.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC)
Quite well put. I do especially relate to your comment on pragmatism. Far more would do well to try everything they believe and see which of those things (practices, ideologies, etc.) succeed and which fail miserably. Let the pruning begin.

On one fun note, I couldn't help getting a bit of a giggle on one typo:

Now, it seems to me that the problem with doing thins should be self-evident.

Why? (Cue Spinal Tap)

"The bigger the cushion,
The better the pushin'. . . ."

I laughed.

Edited at 2012-06-02 07:00 pm (UTC)
Jun. 3rd, 2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
Oops! My Lousy Typing Skills strike again!
(no subject) - maestrodog - Jun. 4th, 2012 06:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 2nd, 2012 09:14 pm (UTC)
I think most (if not all) of this is 'community' (or tribal) behavior that some would say is programmed into us. You get any group of people in a room, and you end up with a 'we' and 'them' (those in the room and everyone else). It is a pretty strong drive in us to identify with a (or many) group(s) and, to do that, we grab onto characteristics that define 'us as a group'. Then we use those characteristics in our speech.

I think it becomes exclusionary when more characteristics are included than are literally intended, eg 'we are polyamorous and mostly geeks'. Note that even 'we' is exclusionary to a new person. If most speech can be focused on 'I' (I am polyamorous and a geek'), that doesn't imply that it is 'better' to be also a geek unless you start saying 'most people here are also geeks'.

I think that it takes a LOT of awareness to avoid the community defining talk and be accepting of a global community of 'everyone is different and isn't it great!?!?!'
Jun. 2nd, 2012 09:39 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. I think it's to be expected that people who generally feel excluded want to make sure their community remains inclusive *of them* and the most straightforward way to achieve that would be to exclude the kind of people that tend to exclude them (the minority) in the larger community. Somewhat paradoxically, a community can become exclusive to remain inclusive. If the percentage of religious attitudes in X community were to reflect mainstream society, and if mainstream society generally excludes, say, pagans, one can expect that X community would eventually exclude pagans too. Why would the pagans want to encourage something that could exclude them from their own community?

I don't have a solution for this problem. But it doesn't seem right to place the onus for inclusiveness on the excluded minority. Who is stopping the Evangelical Mormon Baptists from creating their own kink support groups and showing the geek pagan polys how to be inclusive and welcoming to all, if it's so easy?
Jun. 3rd, 2012 09:15 am (UTC)
To clarify, I have no experience with the communities you mention, but have long been pondering a similar dynamic in a group I belong to.

On second thought, I completely agree with your first point that calling people "muggles" or "mundanes" and creating an arbitrary separation is stupid and counterproductive.

But I have some reservations about the second point, and I don't think it's necessarily related to the first; if people feel uncomfortable with the number of visible "others" in a community, I wonder to what extent they are being actively excluded as opposed to simply feeling uncomfortable because those uppity geeks or atheists or whatever aren't staying in the closet like they're supposed to and like they're forced to do in "normal" social contexts. Often the mere assertion of existence by a minority is seen as threatening by those with majority privilege. If such people leave the community because they're only comfortable among people that are more like themselves, how is that a lack of inclusiveness of the community?
Jun. 2nd, 2012 09:40 pm (UTC)
I love this post. Everything I want to say has been said already above, so I just wanted to say that :)
Jun. 2nd, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
       I find terms like 'muggle' to be handy identifiers. I'm talking about people who are not poly or kinky. It's not an insult. It is a bit of a stereotype. But...not necessarily a negative one. I could type out 'people who are not poly or kinky' every time. But it means the same thing to me.

       There's a difference between using handy identifiers and linguistic shortcuts, and intentionally discriminating against someone. Vanilla, monogamous sex can be just as intense, as magical, as deep and spiritual as any other kind. But it is vanilla sex. Or 'different' from what I'm doing/talking about.

       As far as accepting people for their religious views...tolerance goes both ways. Where do we call people on their BS? On their hate? Why is it okay for them to be mormon or conservative or Evangelical? Whether or not that individual agrees with 100% of those philosophies, they've chosen to self-identify with a culture of small-mindedness, hate, and discrimination. That's not okay. You can still be a cool person, and be Mormon, but you can't be a 'good' Mormon and not believe 80% of the crap they do. 99% of which is awful and hateful and anti-humanism.

       I have no interest in giving someone who believes that gays, brown people, women, muslims, kinksters, etc are sinners and abominations or should all be locked up a 'fair shake'. And whether they believe the same or not, anyone who allies or aligns themselves with those people is not someone I want in my life. No matter how sweet and kind and good they are. Hate is hate. It's not okay.

Jun. 3rd, 2012 05:18 pm (UTC)
I think this is exactly the mistake people make in the opposite direction (not you, the problem you're talking about). Sometimes, in their efforts to be "inclusive", we drown out important dissent. Yeah, we shouldn't be ostracizing other poly folk just for not being kinky. But at the same time, we shouldn't be afraid to speak up when we disagree or when we think someone is wrong, or worse, harmful, out of fear that we're not "inclusive" enough. And that's where this kind of "it's not right to call people names" tends to go. Both side of the spectrum are harmful.
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