I want to start off with the most important thing I can say about this book: it really made me think.
Beneath the Skins came out several years ago, but it is just as relevant now as it ever was. I admit that I have never read a book about the politics of kink before, so this was a particular epiphany for me and perhaps accounts for some of my enthusiasm.
In essence, this book is a collection of essays with themes revolving around the kink community's identity as a culture, as an orientation, and as individuals. Since I am someone who is out of the closet in several ways (including kink) I found these essays served as a sort of whetstone to sharpen my image against. I put the book down only after it was earmarked and highlighted in so many places that it resembled a thing being loved to death.
The essays tackle the expansion and intense diversity within our communities, and the choices of unity or division that naturally stem from that growth. The author asserts that we have lost the original binding force of our culture, the small size and strictly confined choices and behaviors acceptable in our youth. He reminds us that our "small days" are over and with that come the uncertain and awkward phases, as we shift old standards and ways of organization in an attempt to find ourselves. His essays seem to continually ask how we will handle this diversity and how we will remain together and see ourselves as part of a cohesive group while not stifling the variety and individual expression of our members. He offers a tribal model of community and emphasizes health, communication, and cooperation on an individual level being the first step to building our future.
The author's personal experiences truly help to make this book a worthwhile read. He is a kinky person, but is also a member of several other minority groups and has seen the path those groups have taken historically. Learning from the history of other minorities is felt very strongly in his writing, and I found myself feeling more connected to the struggles of gay men in particular after reading this book.
I remember not long ago I personally had my first sense of belonging amongst some leathermen, and the feeling was not so far removed from the things I experienced while reading this book. There is a certain healing and comfort that comes from being accepted and seeing that you and the Other are connected in a way that is very meaningful and powerful despite the small differences that have become amplified in our kinky microcosm. There is an odd healing at such times and a growth in patience and communication once we stop being stereotypes and start being human beings to each other.
I'd like to talk a little bit about a couple of specific essays in this book and some thoughts and feelings they stirred in me. Everyone reading these will find that it stirs something unique to them, but I think everyone will find something stirred. I know that I have to restrict myself to only a few of the essays, or else I would end up writing a book of about the same length as Beneath the Skins! I want to assure you that ALL of the essays caused a certain amount of soul searching, deep thought, and much highlighting.
The first essay I'll talk about is titled "Kink As Orientation." I admit I went into this essay with an attitude and personal bias. I am one of the few holdouts within the community that while being completely out about my kink, doesn't say it is my orientation. I have spoken about this at varying times with others and inevitably I get frustrated. This essay has made me reevaluate my position seriously, and I am quite bullheaded so that really is quite a feat! I disagreed heartily with how the author characterized the anti-kink-as-orientation group but I felt he also gave one of the best and most persuasive arguments I've ever read or heard for it being called an orientation.
The most persuasive and resounding point that struck home with me was when he discussed the difference between labels and names. He writes that a label pretends to be accurate, but it actually only contains the makings of a stereotype. In contrast, he says a name expresses a facet of identity and does not pretend to tell everything about a person. Then he said that defining ourselves as an orientation is a way of naming ourselves. BAM! That hit home. I finally understood this in a way that spoke to my heart.
He went on to bring up another point I had never considered, monosexuality. The author describes this to mean the belief that someone is either heterosexual or homosexual. He then goes on to expand this definition to include the belief that heterosexual and homosexual are the only two poles on the continuum. He introduces the term polysexuality to mean multiple continuums (Top-Bottom, Sadism-Masochism, Butch-Femme, and such) all interlocking to form a person's distinct sexuality. I was impressed by this concept, and I must admit that when I read about it I felt a bit like someone who has lived in the same house for many years and suddenly discovers the elephant that has been standing in their living room the whole time.
Another essay I would like to discuss is titled, "Stone, Paper, Scissors." This is an essay revolving around a brilliant metaphor that sprung to his mind after going to a community meeting and seeing the dysfunction of communication present amongst the members. He describes three main groups: Backpatch clubs (stone), SM organizations (paper), and GDIs or God Damn Independents (scissors). He speaks of seeing how they fought amongst themselves and did not think of what each group brought to the table, but only concentrated on the differences and canceled each other out.
I must admit that personally while reading this I gained a new respect for some ideologies within kink that I have struggled to understand. The author was so eloquent and honest in describing the strengths, weaknesses, and underlying similarities for each group that it absolutely compelled me to see the things that were best about different forms of organization within kink, and indeed the things that linked me to every member of our community. It was a very inspirational piece and I feel it is something that will not only affect my current thinking, but also all my future interactions.
The last essay I will discuss here is titled, "Introduction To The Shadow." This essay is actually kind of an introduction to the next few essays in the book that explore ideas brought up in this one. Basically, the author uses the concept of "shadow" to represent the thoughts and feelings we drive out of our conscious minds and hearts. He speaks of the individual personal shadow and the collective shadows of the larger cultures and groups. The author stresses his belief that part of our personal and community healing can only take place after we have each confronted our own shadows. He analyses the phobias of society and how they become internalized either consciously or subconsciously. I particularly found the concept of "possession" to mean acting out of the shadows of the cultures at large by internalizing them unconsciously, to be very interesting and thought provoking. A later essay entitled "Soul Retrieval" talks about reclaiming our own shadow selves, separating it from the external shadows that have possessed us, and creating a sense of self recognition that allows us to honestly see and act like ourselves.
I sat up most of the night after reading the "Introduction To The Shadows" series of essays. I found that it made me question a lot of my own shadow self. It made me ask myself important questions about where certain ideas had sprung from, and who I was outside of what people told me I should be. All in all, it was a very educational experience.
I think this book would be of interest to anyone who has ever given thought to their identity as a kinky person and of particular interest to those who interact with the community at large. This would be a good book for those who are honestly trying to understand the kink culture, even if they are not a part of it. They would not have to be kinky to identify with the larger themes of the book (namely finding yourself, being true to your goals, and trying to achieve good communication). I think because of this common bedrock, they would find themselves identifying with kinky people in ways that they would be surprised. I would especially recommend this book for anyone that is gay-lesbian-bi or a member of another minority group aside from kink, since those issues are addressed so frequently and well within the text.
I do offer an intense caution, however. This book could cause you lack of sleep, excessive snack consumption, and a dry highlighter pen. Well, that was the affect it had on me.
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