MAsT – Masters, slaves, and volunteer management

As anyone I talk to knows, and as I’ve posted here, I’m pretty much immersed in a project until the end of the month, so I’ve been very scarce. That said I wanted to take a moment to just post a few thumbnails about MAsT in DC. There have been some good posts on FetLife as well.

The big question of course is “what was it like.” I had some fears about this. At the risk of being cruel (because sometimes I am), let’s look at the overall “scene.” There are times I look around and feel a deep kinship and sense of shared purpose with everyone in it. But there are other times I have looked around and said “what the fuck. Who are these losers.” Obviously I’m not talking about most people in the community, and I push community as hard as anyone I know. But (and I know there are readers who’ve never done scene events), don’t you ever look around and some of the geekier, less socialized people sort of stick out and you think “Christ, I’m associated with these people.” I have enough geek antecedents as it is, without hanging out with the losers. Because the scene attracts a certain layer of people who are there because it’s “what they can get,” or even “with wild hopes to gawk and stare.”

My life has changed a lot in the past few years. I’ve gone from saying that “well slavery is an okay choice but not my choice right now (I’m too good a lawyer to ever have to eat my own words…I know how to weasel-word)” to having recently agreed to enter into a term M/s relationship with M. It was always the case that I said that “I am not against it, but it requires time on the part of the Dominant partner commensurate with the commitment by the submissive partner.” I still feel that way – one reason I wanted to attend MAsT. I like to learn. But I also realized that improving my abilities to maintain relationships as a Dominant goes across the board. However much I pretend to be just a bully and bastard, the fact is that a lot of thought has to go into acting as a dominant. But it is the same thought. What enriches one relationship enriches them all. Currently the M/s dynamic is a deepening of an existing dynamic and I feel very strongly about that.

So what was my fear? I was going to a Conference run by MAsT devoted to people who maintain a Master/slave or very strong D/s identification. What if they were the losers among the losers? I mean slavery. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison “I was raised a nice white protestant boy from a Washington suburb.” Slavery was something bad we had a war over once upon a time, and gentlemen open doors for ladies (more about that later).

What if the people that I met were asses? About a year ago, when I was still just developing my protocols, I’d searched out “SlaveMaster” Mike McDade’s protocols because they came heavily recommended. I had pretty much just skipped the first few paragraphs because every protocol I’d seen had some flowery intro on the joys of slavery, and I just wanted the technical information. However, I referenced them to a writer friend, a very smart sort of girl, who was working on some fiction. She was…not impressed…by “SlaveMaster.” When I read the intro, I kind of wasn’t either. What if these people came off as jerks? Technically this didn’t matter to me, but…to be working on a certain lifestyle for a year, and find maybe that the people who had influenced you were not people you respected?

I should have used some logic. MAsT is a cerebrally oriented conference with no sex workshops (not that I’m against those) and no internal play space. So people attending had three disposing factors

a) With probably only a handful of exceptions, they were in a working M/s or D/s relationship. That means that somebody in the world was willing to live with them/deal with them on a regular basis.

b) The echelon of kind of skanky people who have never played and probably never will but are there to watch was gone. There was nothing to watch.

c) People without two brain cells that fire at the same time do not attend weekend-long conferences where all there is to do is talk about the theory of social power dynamics.

As you can probably tell from this, I was reasonably impressed with the crowd. I am not going to tell you that they were Hollywood actors, and that it was a scene from some “Story of O” movie. But overall the lowest element of the unsocialized seem to have fallen out the bottom, and the result was not better than the people you’d see at Camp Crucible or BR, but among the better of those people.

I also needn’t have worried about the speakers, and people I met who were published or leaders. M/s is actually a pretty small pond. I met a substantial cross section of the names I know and recognize from writing and reference.

I should add that most attendees use titles. One tends to refer to “Master Joe” or “slave jill.” The thing to understand is that there’s no focus and no particular tone to it. It’s not like Bwahahah ‘MASTER’ and ‘you worthless slave..” People just use the titles, like saying “Lieutenant Joe “ and “Sergeant jill.” They roll off naturally and without much emphasis. Not having put a title on my badge (because I really don’t like being pretentious) ended up being a bit awkward at dinner, so likely next time I will.

This is really a fairly small and somewhat new community. Serious D/s comes heavily from the Gay leather community (though we can see elements of it in the straight community even as far back as Weimar Germany), and does not share all the elements of the mainline “scene.” It seems to be generally conceded that the Community represented by MAsT really got its start at MAsT really started with the Southeast Leatherfest in 1999.

Across the board, let me tell you what I feared and did not find, at all. People behaving like jackasses. Self-important “masters” and “experts” who had ‘tude. I have seldom met a more polite, generally unassuming bunch of people. I did not meet anyone identified as a leader of the community…or really anybody…who seemed pretentious. Everyone who was speaking, teaching, etc., was very down to earth and un-selfassuming. You have this fear I think that to act like a “true Dom” you are going to have to be an asshole. Not open doors for ladies. Be arrogant and dismissive. Or people will think you are weak. I never could bring myself to do that, and what I found is that absolutely nobody else who is anyone even remotely respected does either. They are polite, realistic, practical, very reasonable, friendly, and generally have a good sense of humor without “lessening” their dedication. It seems that if you actually walk the walk, you don’t need to talk the talk quite as loud.

I also expected to see a lot of…kind of ugly dynamics. You know the ones you see where X is the Dom and Y is the partner, and Z is the other partner and they are saying everything is okay but you can tell there were just tears in the hotel room, and that there is a cloud of drama floating around and that there is a lot of rivalry and upset over power exchange, and everyone is not okay?

Not much of that. I saw a lot of couples/triads/households that exuded stability and calm. I heard more people talk about problems and issues and having to deal with them, but seem to be doing it from a place of calm than I did people talking about how stable they were while clearly doing it from a place of instability, and I see that a lot in other places.

I am sure not everyone was in a good place relationship wise, or was having a good weekend. But the average seemed pretty high, and the amount of rather genuine self-analytic talk I heard was…refreshing.

“Dr. Bob” – Robert Rubel (who pronounces his own name “ruble” like the Russian money, though everyone else seems to pronounce it “roo-bell”) was a tremendously personable man and a convincing speaker. He also is very outspoken about the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. To some extent he writes on and analyzes relationships and communication because they didn’t “just come naturally” to him, and he had to figure them out. I found him an engaging speaker in person, and the one or two things that came across as a little “quirky” made sense. He has a very good sense of self and proportion. “Somebody asked me why I have my slave re-dedicate herself, why we do our re-dedication ritual every twenty four hours, every day…the answer is that I am a hard man to live with…”

Master Taino I knew nothing about other than that he has an Academy, that he’s well known, has some good comments, articles, interviews online and is often cited and seems respected. I found out quickly this is because he’s just a very engaging guy. He’s incredibly matter of fact and practical and manages to seem…like he gives a fuck…without being weak. He has a thick Puerto Rican accent and you can imagine him saying “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” I found him very charming. I think it would be very hard not to like him. I think his best quote…and it’s hard to quote him without wanting to imitate his accent because it is a part of his charm…was when someone asked him if when he brought a new slave into his household the other boys (his household is all gay though the academy does have women’s weekends) , voted or had a veto. He shook his head and said…”Well, a veto…no…but…” then smiled very warmly “you no wanna shoot yourself in the foot either…” That was I think a model for the weekend. The triumph of common sense. Nobody I talked to believed that Protocol Manuals, or Slave Training built relationships. Building blocks yes, but there was an understanding that they were tools, not magic bullets.

There were some other people I met and didn’t get to speak with much, but found I warmed to strongly. Sir Stephen of Chicago MAsT who is one of the few people who does not wear a lot of leather (he models his household on a Victorian household and tends to dress either in formal dress, or at least formally), was also someone I took an immediate liking to. He is the sort of guy who you don’t need imagination to know has never dressed in drag in his life and has no desire to. Yet on a sort of dare, he let himself be conned into dressing in drag (yes it was probably rehearsed) to raise about $985 for the Travel Fund. He was a good sport about it, and that impressed me. Throughout the weekend when he spoke you got the feel of someone with solid common sense and a very strong tendency not to over-react.

On a side note, I was very impressed with the dinner conversation. We bought tickets to the Banquet in hopes of meeting people and making contacts. We were lucky enough to be seated with Master Alex Keppeler, the Director Emeritus of MAsT; Master Gallad from Chicago, and slave Kelly, as well as several other fascinating folks. The tone of the conversation was very high. Master Gallad had some very sound ideas on better electronic information distribution, and I was very impressed at his clarity and vision. I’ve been to a lot of leather events, and this was really a very…high end…discussion. Meaningful topics of concern rather than social networking. I was impressed at the tone.

Not everything is perfect. Master Skip Chasey opened the weekend with a keynote address, talking about incivility and worrying that it threatened to destroy our community. Clearly he was alluding to harms and feuds among the leadership. I know these things exist and are often hidden from outsiders. I have no doubt they affected some well known guests who no longer attend at all, and are responsible for the dilution and collapse of some MAsT chapters. At a guess, I’d have to think that our region is not the worst for these tensions.

I am not competent to say whether or not Master Skip (people call him that) is entirely correct. He is widely respected, being an instructor at APEX Academy/Butchmann’s. His personal focus is a very spiritual path, which I find admirable but don’t heavily associate with.

One point that did concern me was a strong statement that “the S/m community are outsiders among the outsiders. …other Scene people consider us suspect. “ Master Skip went on to say that When the Second Leather Leadership Conference in 1998 included language in its statement on “The Difference Between SM and Abuse” that could be construed to define S/m relationships as inherently abusive, “the leadership” responded “and I quote…those people are on the fence. We don’t care about them.” It’s a little disconcerting to hear this without a citation, and I’d be very interested in knowing who said it and in what context. For folks who like to follow these things, I’ve found a statement attributed to LLC3 in SF, but that’s not the same as LLC 2 in NYC. The

Clearly this guy is not the sort of person who lies, and I am certain the comments he remembers are true, though knowing the run of small group politics, I’d like to know who said it and to what level they really spoke for the leadership of the whole. At the very least one message is clear. The Community in general is not as supportive of M/s in all places as it is in our region.

His focal point right now, seemed to be a concern with a push towards defining a common lexicon. His argument was that an attempt to standardize terms cannot help by also standardize dogma and doctrine, and thus narrow the range of what is acceptable allowing “common practice” to become a club that can be used to beat and ostracize. He is against a common doctrine, and therefore against defining a common lexicon. I tend to disagree that doctrine automatically heavily follows doctrine. I think that in some areas it does, but against that you have the overwhelming pervasive force of the interwebz, yahooism, and people publishing whatever they feel like. If any group really pushes to become the “one true way” I think in today’s market they quickly perish.

While I’m not an expert on MAsT and cannot deny that Master Skip knows far more about it than I probably ever will, I am a fair expert on volunteer group dynamics. And I have never been one to get too alarmed when someone sounded a fire alarm. I understand that coming from the spiritual standpoint he does, gossip and backbiting in the community are very disheartening to Master Skip, and I don’t think any of us like that. But as a student of volunteer group dynamics I also know that these things always have been and always will be a part of every small group.

The one fault I had is that Master Skip did not present a very strong answer to “are we to have no standards,” and admitted he didn’t have one. Earlier another presenter gave the case of a Dom he knew in the southwest. This Dominant picked up a slave who wanted to get very serious very quickly. Soon however, the slave (a girl in this case) got online and began blogging about her Master’s abusiveness (real, not the good kind) and this Dominant found himself unwelcome in several clubs and organizations. In the long run it turns out that the slave admitted to being diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and MPD, and had a dissociative young girl personality who she felt posted things “when she wasn’t there,” or some such. The presenter (I don’t recall who it was) had an acquaintance or household member who knew this girl and knew she had these issues and basically said “why didn’t you ask before you went out with her.” The point being that clearly somewhere there is a line between gossip and fair warning in our communities and that trying not to backbite and bad mouth each other does not mean precisely sitting still and watching a train wreck without even giving a word of warning. I could have used a practical discussion of the ethics of that more than a high-minded pitch against it.

If nothing else though the keynote pointed me at this excellent article by Chris M. on Leather Ethics: Civility And Incivility in The Scene. Some of the best points came from this article, with attribution, including the observation that

Some scenefolk, in an effort to appear imperial (kingly, of high standard, worthy of respect) conduct themselves in a manner that is imperious (overbearing, bossy, judgmental). A surprising number of scene-folk are born to this confusion. Some attain it after a few years in the community, as they assume community leadership positions, or when they decide they should be recognized as authorities, if not superiors. While some clearly feel that imperious behavior demonstrates expertise, importance, and intelligence, in truth it almost never fails to alienate potential friends and play partners, making the offender look bad.

That came up again later in the weekend. At the MAsT meeting at the end one of the participants…a young fellow…made a rather impulsive but impassioned statement about the fear that this would “get out” into the larger world. That we practice M/s safely, respectfully, but that if this became a pervasive paradigm in the modern culture there could be terrible results. Sir Stephen with an admirable sense of proportion did not seem too concerned about MAsT overturning the western cultural paradigm. On a group level he said “well yes, people will want to do things differently and they’ll break off into other groups and then those groups will also break off as things progress,” suggesting that the process was natural and inevitable. I thought this was demonstrating a very admirable sense of how small group dynamics work.

On a personal level, MAsT was very interesting to me. People who know me know that I am not much of a touchy-feely person and that I tend to only express emotions with people I have a strong rapport with and consider that to be a very private matter.

If I had one revelation over the weekend it is that I have been in an M/s relationship for the past twenty years. S/m is Volunteer management. Seriously. Volunteer management is building excellence and getting performance from people whose only motivation for doing the job is its fulfillment and the praise you give them. S/m is the same thing.

MAsT was interesting because it presented a really solid set of pictures of people with successful multiple partner relationships that had extended in some cases for twenty years, and in some cases their lifetime…there was a session on dealing with grief and death in an S/m household/family. Certainly I had known this was possible. That my own relationships were not inherently doomed to burnout and failure. But as I said, “it is one thing to be told the world is round and another to meet a man who has sailed to Cathay or the Japans and returned to tell of it.” The weekend made it very real to me, and I also learned a lot. This was practical stuff and I appreciated everything I was able to learn and every experience I was able to benefit from.

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