3 min

Academics’ fetish

'We are all kinky in one way or another'

This weekend’s conference on fetish and BDSM at U of T is aiming to expand the understanding of the discipline (pardon the pun).

“Whenever you say ‘sexual diversity studies’ to someone they assume it’s queer, which is one of the reasons we selected fetishism [as the conference focus],” says conference chair Niya Bajaj.

Bajaj, a fourth year undergraduate majoring in Sexual Diversity Studies, says the conference aims to counter the historical tendency for academics, and especially medical researchers, to pathologize BDSM. The conference title, Fetish: Working Out the Kinks, was inspired by what the organizers see as a cultural gap between the BDSM community and academia.

“By creating an environment where they [kinky people] can speak about their experiential learning maybe we can bridge the gap,” says Bajaj.

The conference, presented by the students’ union of U of T’s SDS program, runs Fri, Mar 14 and 15, features a keynote address by sexologist Carol Queen and is expected to attract about 200 attendees.

Bajaj says organizers have reached out to local fetish scenes for presenters and attendees, including attending local fetish events such as SubSpace and Northbound Leather’s Switch, and promoting the event through local kink email lists. Local presenters include Andrea Zanin, a self-proclaimed sex geek who has taught workshops at local sex shops Good for Her and Come as You Are, and Lord Morpheus, a Toronto-based author, sex educator and artist.

“We’d also like to use this as a networking opportunity to build a stronger sexual diversity studies community that isn’t purely academic or theoretical,” says Bajaj, adding that, as in other areas of research, the hope is that if academics get to know the people they’re studying, they’ll be able to ask the right questions from the start.

Although the conference builds on kinky content throughout the SDS curriculum, Bajaj credits the idea to focus on kink to fellow student and conference organizer Matthew Pope.

“I have a personal interest and passion for the subject of fetish and BDSM,” says Pope. “I think it remains one of the last truly taboo and misunderstood areas in Western sexual discourse.

“[BDSM] is still generally regarded with humour or stigma or even characterized as being symptomatic of a greater psychological disorder,” says Pope. “None of these things could be further from the truth.”

Pope, who splits his time among a self-designed musicology major, a minor in East Asian studies and a minor in sexual diversity studies, says he hopes the conference will help demystify BDSM for academics and the general public.

“In the same way that queers have fought the stereotype of the bulldyke or flamboyant twink so too I would like to dissolve the stereotypes of who a kinky person is or looks like,” says Pope. “We could be sitting right next to you.”

Pope also wants to emphasize the difference between erotic and sexual. “BDSM and kink are invariably the former and by no means necessarily the latter,” says Pope. “I think separating BDSM from an inherently sexual understanding is essential to what the conference is about.”

Bajaj says organizers had a good response to the conference’s call for proposals. “There were definitely people whose presentations we could not include due to time constraints. People are very eager to present work,” says Bajaj, adding that academic conferences that focus on BDSM are few and far between.

With so many proposals to choose from, why is the conference so short? Bajaj says that in the end the decision to limit the conference to a day and a half came down to the cost of running the event, which is being covered by student fundraising and ticket prices.

“People have been very understanding that this is a student group,” says Bajaj, adding that some speakers waived their fees and that U of T’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, which houses the SDS department, is sponsoring the event.

“This is a conference for people to learn about BDSM and in that process to see themselves,” says Pope. “This is for people to learn that we are all kinky in one way or another.”