Interview with Joseph Bean, Author & Activist

Joseph Bean may be the best-known out gay leatherman in the country. As the author of Flogging, the groundbreaking classic Leathersex: A Guide, and it’s sequel Leathersex Q & A, and the writer of many columns, essays and editorials about sexuality, sex-tech and sexual-freedom activism over the past 15 years, he became a much sought after speaker and instructor. He has taught and lectured in venues as various as San Francisco State University, Vancouver Activists in SM, National Sexuality Seminars, Gay Male SM Activists in New York, Leather High School and Leather University in Fort Lauderdale, the Fetish Ball weekend in Houston.”

Sadie: You are a prolific writer and speaker. What projects are you working on right now?

Joseph: “There are several projects in the works at the moment. For one, I am collecting articles about leather history I have written over the years from my files and elsewhere to provide to the Leather Archives && Museum. They are issuing a series of CDs so that clubs, event producers, publishers of newsletters and such will have art, photographs and articles to use. I am also writing a biography of Chuck Renslow, one of leather history’s great characters: owner of the infamous Gold Coast and many other leather bars, founder of International Mr. Leather, and so forth. And, my other large project is writing the history of International Mr. Leather to be published by IML after May 2003, its 25th year. And, in addition to those things, I am trying to find a way to earn a living, but most people who would consider hiring me would actually want me to work on what they were paying me for, but I’m probably too busy for that.

“As a matter of fact, I have also been doing a good deal of volunteer work…consulting and writing jobs…for local non-profits now that I live in Paradise (also known as Maui) where community service of some sort is expected of everyone.”

Sadie: You write extensively about the relationship between God, sex, and BDSM. When did you first start making this connection? If you were to put your philosophy into a few sentences, how would you express it?

Joseph: “I think it is safe to say that by the time I could name sex ‘sex’ or know what I was speaking of when I said ‘ seeking or serving God,’ I have known that they are two ways to both use and ‘language’ the same energies.

“In brief, if we are ever spiritual, then we are always spiritual. There is no moment in our time, no place in our space, no level in our being where we are not spiritual. So, we are necessarily spiritual creatures as much when we are horny as any other time, as much in the bed or the dungeon as any other place, and as much when we are absorbed by thoughts and sensations of physical sexuality as when we are contemplating Eternal God in commonly recognized religious forms.”

Sadie: What is the key thing that you believe that spirituality adds to the BDSM mix? Or, in other words, why drag this in when things are complicated enough already?

Joseph: “The question, in a sense, doesn’t have meaning in my frame of reference. There is no way to drag spirituality in or leave it out of any part of your life. What is gained by recognizing this is the possibility, or at least the slight risk that we will have amazing and ecstatic experiences during sex that we would otherwise pass nearby and never taste or grasp because some such experiences simply can not be made rational or understood in a context of purely physical sexuality.”

Sadie: Chris M. from Black Rose referred to some of your ideas in his article on BDSM & Spirituality: “Going Deep: Topspace, Bottomspace, and Sado-Erotic Ecstasy.” He describes your analogy of the top role as being similar “to the role of the KaSeka, the shaman or tribal holy man, in the medicine ritual… The KaSeka doesn’t just heal and enlighten his subject, he goes on the trip himself.” Considering how many Dominants feel that they are there to “make it happen” for their submissives, can you explain a little bit about how this gestalt is different, both in concept and in practice?

Joseph: “The shamanic approach to SM…maybe I could even say the shamanic approach to life itself, SM included…is one of willing service which seeks to give individuals inspiring experiences largely so they will share the ecstasy and the inspiration. It is also one that never completely forgets that the shaman himself and his near ones are among the elements of the world we hope to save, cleanse, elevate or otherwise improve by higher, more intelligent, more accurate use.

“In SM terms, the idea came to me not as a bolt out of the blue, but as a simple statement made during an interview I did of Fakir Musafar. That interview was published in Drummer magazine and later reprinted in Mark Thompson’s super-classic book Leatherfolk.

“What made the idea so powerful for me is the simple fact that I already had the experience, but had no language to properly describe it. And, when you are not (yet) able to give names and verbs to describing experience, you are not (yet) able to direct, improve or make choices effectively about those categories of experience. So, Fakir gave me the words and definitions I needed.

“The KaSeka, as I understood Fakir, is one with experience who oversees and facilitates the experience of a novice or lesser experienced person (although clearly, the actual degree of experience is not the thing itself, and to some extent role matters too). It has come down to this simple explanation: In the traditional understanding of SM, the top launches the bottom from the shore and, for as long as he can see the where the bottom is, he manages the scene. In the shamanic understanding, the top can launch the bottom then, before the bottom gets too far from the shore, hop into the ‘boat’ and take the trip with him. This is done by using the powers that derive from the top’s personal experience and the adhesion created by his or her love of that bottom, that scene, etc.

“The eventualities and possible results of this approach can be discovered with some ease by reflecting on the boat and rider, shore and launcher imagery.”

Sadie: Do you see BDSM as a conduit to spiritual experience, vice versa, or is it more like they are parallel but integrated experiences? Do you think that BDSM can be used to invoke a spiritual experience? If so, what techniques would you recommend?

Joseph: “I see that spirituality and sexuality use the same energy and that they are separate and seemingly unrelated, even opposite, only to the degree that the person they occur for/within is not yet fully integrated…and most people spend their entire lives not fully integrated so you don’t have to go to an asylum looking for an example. Neither SM nor sex is a conduit for spirituality any more than spiritual practice is a conduit for sexual expression.

“If you are functioning at anything less than 100% of your full potential, and we all are, there is room to have experiences where sexual activity, by the intensity of pleasure or otherwise, evokes an ecstatic ‘event.’ So, in that sense, it could be said that SM…sexual activity within certain categories of intensity-seeking…could result in spiritual experience. It would, nonetheless, be very wrong-headed and even crazy to do SM for the purpose of achieving these ecstasies and spiritual thresholds. If we live our lives seeking pleasures that are ethically simple for us, morally clean for us, and personally fulfilling for us, the best and most intense of these can open the doors of perception in ways that we will understand as ecstatic. At the highest and best times, we will even experience this as mystical. All of this is equally possible from sex or SM, from poetry reading or singing, from running to our limits or being beaten to them.”

Sadie: One of your current projects is a series of “Plenary Sessions” on God and sex. What are you using these for? How would you describe your basic premise?

Joseph: “The lectures you refer to were the plenary sessions (meaning all were free to attend them and there were no competing events) of Metropolitan Community Church’s Leadership Conference 2002 which took place in September. I think the basic premise is pretty much set out above. My intention was simply to explain to Church leaders what I believe is a holistic and comprehensible way of grasping sexuality and spirituality, including the particularities of homosexuality and heterosexuality that is intentionally not procreative. Child-bearing and child-rearing, in my view, form one specific way for a pair of humans to use the energies of spiritual and sexual activity. Seeing that in that way shines a specific light on the non-reproductive types of sexual expression.”

Sadie: You believe that “it is always inappropriate to have sex of any kind under any conditions with any partner until and unless there is a bond of love between us.” And yet it’s also true that you might be defining “love” differently than most of American culture. Can you explain what you mean?

Joseph: “I believe that the love I am speaking of there is not open to a variety of understandings. As I also said in the lecture you are quoting, when I am stripped of my clothing and my defenses and my pretenses and left skin to skin and heart to heart with another human being, I know that I am vulnerable and that my only safety lies in giving love freely and being worthy of receiving love. Otherwise, I will rape or be raped; use or be used; lust or become an object of lust. Love means wanting someone else’s happiness and pleasure and the fulfillment of that persons needs and even his or her wants ahead of anything you might want for yourself. This idea of love may be too analytical for most head-over-heels romantics in the throes of their first few passionate attachments, but they’d recognize it. Older (More jaded?) people would only not recognize it because it doesn’t make room for the cynicism and negativity they heave learned from not getting what they wanted out of love. But, as you see from the definition, I believe we are never intended to get what we want out of love. We are meant to give love freely, not trade it for something we value.”

Sadie: You write that: “Love is God and God is love and that comfort and safety and self-defense are not love’s way, not God’s plan. I can just as surely invite God to watch and approve and demand his due in my just-met-you sex events as any lover in a 30-year relationship can.” I agree on a philosophical level. But also, being that we’re human beings, it’s so easy to mistake love with lust or a number of other things, especially when we have only known a person for a few minutes, hours, or even days. How can we know a person even the slightest bit having just met them?

Joseph: “You mistake my intentions here. I don’t suggest that you can ‘know a person even the slightest bit having just met them.’ I do however suggest that you can love the person. It is my habit to assume that people I meet are presenting themselves honestly. That is enough. I will love them. That is the easiest way to go through the world. And, in the course of knowing people for a moment or a lifetime, they may give me obstacles to overcome. If I don’t know them well and have no extenuating reasons for holding on and learning more, it will take only one or a few very small obstacles for me to turn away from someone. I don’t have to hate the person, I just know I can’t ‘make’ love with them…by which I don’t necessarily mean have sex. If I have known them longer, I will have more against which to balance small ‘issues’ and more reasons to overcome the larger difficulties. But, in any case, the love is the love. It is the same thing. It grows richer and, because we find reasons to overcome the challenges, we become ‘richer’ human beings loving someone over time. That is one of the things to be appreciated in a long-term relationship. There are many. But the unpredictability and ever-changing challenges of new relationships or super-short-term ones can teaches us a lot as well.”

Sadie: I was very moved by a comment that writer Chris M. made in one of his articles on BDSM & spirituality. He says “I bottomed to Joseph Bean in a ferociously heavy scene at Black Rose 98. It was a glorious affair, bloody and savage.” Clearly, you are having one hell of an effect on a lot of people Joseph. What is it about you that brings out such passion in other people?

Joseph: “If there is anything at all special about me, it is only the thing that we have already talked about: I would never start a scene with anyone without loving that person. Most people are unaccustomed to being loved; some may never have been loved until the hour or whatever time we spend together. But in the essence of loving someone is the paramount drive to give that person exactly what is needed and, if possible, beyond that, exactly what is wanted. People who do SM (or anything I think) from that perspective will necessarily be rare, but anyone willing to take that approach would be a lot like me. Then, of course, it doesn’t hurt that I have taken the time to learn scene dynamics and SM techniques well enough that I don’t have even one brain cell engaged in remembering or enforcing them, so I am completely available to be with my partner, to be devoted to the needs, wants and even pleasures of my partner. All of which is infinitely less ‘selfless’ than it seems. I get everything I need too, but I don’t go into any scene with my wants or needs in mind at all.”

Sadie: You also write that it is not okay to act strictly out of lust. Why is it truly not okay to act out of lust?

Joseph: “Why is not OK to act out of lust? Because lustful, in this case, non-loving interactions we are made to feel less good about ourselves, while the same ‘transaction’ conducted lovingly (even if dressed up to look like rapacious lust) makes us feel better about ourselves. Lust takes a high and fine energy, and demands that it not provide a high and fine human experience.”

Sadie: One of your speeches says that, “Even at this earliest moment of knowable history, we are told that sex is, at least metaphorically, essential to a proper relationship between people and the gods, between the physical world and the divine. Sacred, loving sex and profane, lustful sex were seen from the beginning as two separate and arguably opposite forces.” I might describe your approach as a more mind/body/spirit one. Would you agree?

Joseph: “First, you have to let people know that the quotation you are referring to is not about 2002, it is about The Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale that is at least 7,000 years old, possibly much older.

“But, as the question of whether my approach is ‘a more mind/body/spirit one,’ I can only say that there is immense room for misunderstanding in saying it that way. I do not believe that mind is on a level with spirit. Various functions of the human body connect with or refer to either sex or spirit in various ways. Mental functioning, emotional functioning, and physical/instinctive functioning are, in a sense on one level: They are all essential functions, none of them can be completely turned off in a living human being, etc. Spirituality and sexuality are on another level. They do not operate constantly in a human being and do not begin to function ‘normally’ at birth. In a way, you could say that all of these functions are including in the term ‘body.’ From another perspective, only the mind, heart, physical functions are ‘body.’ And, from another very obvious perspective, mind, heart and physical functioning are non-body and only the events and experiences required to go on breathing and metabolizing…the things that are easily called ‘instinctive’…are ‘bodily.’

“This is not meant to confuse the issue. It is only meant to suggest that the various New Age metaphors (such as mind/spirit/body), however good they are for their intended purposes, don’t encompass my way of thinking. It should also be pointed out that New Age philosophy generally is the ‘religious’ perspective most hateful to SM.”

Sadie: What do you man, “New Age philosophy generally is the ‘religious’ perspective most hateful to SM?”

Joseph: “Just exactly that. I have found that New Agers are worlds less likely to accommodate or even ignore SM. They react to it the way the (New Age) women of the music festivals and such do, as though it is always a direct offense to them even if it is done by consenting adults in private. Most other religions or spiritual paths are largely exemplified by tolerance of some sort, no matter how little I like the reasoning. Once they get over whatever shock they experience upon hearing of it, Christians, Buddhists, most Moslem communities, etc. find a way to either accept or leave alone the private sexualities of others, but New Age philosophies continue to rail at SM just as some of them do at meat eating. It is not enough that they get to decide things for themselves, they need to be in charge of ‘improving’ and ‘creating peace’ for everyone… their way.”

Sadie: The Plenary series is not focused on the BDSM aspect of spiritual sexuality. Do you plan to pull that in, or do you feel that’s already been done in your books? In writing about God and sex, I wonder if we could also substitute BDSM for sex in this commentary.

Joseph: “I have been writing about SM and spirituality for many years, and have been talking about it for many more years, but the lectures you saw were not written for a leather/SM/fetish audience. The crowd was largely gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or questioning as to sexual orientation and gender matters and would not have been quick to understand the explanation of all this from a fully ‘leathered-up’ perspective. Neither would they have felt properly included or reached if I spoke in a leather/SM/fetish language.

“All the same, if you already have an understanding of the SM experience, I would say, yes, usually, with the proviso that we realize there are forms and behaviors included in what is now called BDSM that would not work. Secondly, forms of SM that achieve or aim at great intensity of physical pain or other experience should be discussed separately or added in carefully because the speed and depth and so forth would differ. There are any number of sex-styles within BDSM, most of which could step right into the place of sex in all my lectures, but some of them are commonly not performed with sexual energy. When they are not performed with sexual energy, they cannot be discussed in the same way as sex.”

Sadie: You write that, “I’m sure you’ve heard before, we are not human beings seeking a spiritual experience, we are spiritual being having a human experience, and that is no more true when you kneel in prayer than when you kneel in a sex club.” I’m sure a lot of people will have major issues in reconciling these ideas. When did you start developing these unconventional ideas about sex and spirituality?

Joseph: “I don’t believe that people will have any trouble ‘reconciling these ideas’ if they are spiritual seekers who accept and live within an understanding of the need to be responsible for themselves spiritually. Of course, those who seek God only within the boundaries approved by a church and the guides provided by a church will have a problem with everything I say. If they are also SM folks, they will be taught that they must hate people like themselves or even that God hates them. Along the way, they may learn to disconnect sufficiently to sit through sermons that direct them to hate sinners without recalling that the word is meant to include themselves, but I don’t think they ever forget it completely. But anyone who accepts that spiritual existence is a treasure we build by growing in it (which is a principle of any and all serious spiritual practice), will know that God is not a grocery store, not a place one goes on occasion our of need. They will also realize that, as I said before, if we are spiritual beings at all, then we are spiritual being at all times and places. It’s like being blond. If you are blond at all, you are always blond. You can fool some people, maybe you can even fool all the people all the time, but you still know you are blond and you still have to go out of your way to put on a show of being not-blond. Being spiritual is like that.”

Sadie: You were born in Humansville, Missouri, a very small crossroads in the Ozarks, writing that “The miracle of gas lighting inside homes, for example, was surprising in my childhood. We had kerosene lamps and candles.” How did your upbringing in a less “sophisticated” atmosphere contribute to your ideas about God, sexuality and life?

Joseph: “Little, I think. That is, little directly. It is surely true that the natural facts about a rural childhood would have some bearing on how I would approach and learn from things…and my early years were, in effect a rural childhood in late 19th Century America, even though I was born in 1947. There is, for instance, the presumption of honesty. That is a definitely rural custom, one that survives only with a great deal of help in the faster and fuller world of cities.

“It may also be true that the part of the Ozarks that was still to be found in the hearts and habits of just about everyone around me through my teens, although we lived in California by then, may have been more meaningful than I know.

“My grandmother’s habit was to reduce all problems to very, very simple analogies from nature or farm. That probably infuses my thinking to some extent with a reverence for natural processes that would be mysterious or meaningless for most people.

“Still, in the end, I think my ideas and my passions were largely formed by reading, then looking to life to see if the conclusions I drew from reading held up in the world of human experience.”

Sadie: When you were seventeen, you became involved with the Old Guard of BDSM, where “Each of us knew our place: out of the way until called, silent until ordered to speak, available to be used or ignored by the men towering over our cowering forms.” Having come into a culture this strict, how has this affected your current approach to BDSM?

Joseph: “The description is true of the leather circles I knew best from my teen years into my late twenties. What that does for me is simple, it makes me feel sorry for the huge numbers of people who have arrived in the national and international leather/SM/fetish communities feeling entitled to all that generations before them created, but unwilling even to taste, much less live through the lessons it takes to inherit a share of all that.

“It means that I just get very frustrated when someone is angry that their SM experience is not developing depth and meaning, not leading them to real satisfaction or coordinating with their growth as humans. How should their SM connect to any of that or have meaning or become deeper for them when it is not acknowledged as part of their life, but is merely a way that they behave. There is nothing wrong with that. It is entirely OK to have your SM be a set of behaviors, sexual or otherwise, instead of having it be the essential nature of your life. That’s fine, but if that is the way you approach it, then that is your choice. You can not then complain that the other, possibly richer and more satisfying experience of SM that others have or had is ‘denied’ you. It has not been denied, you have rejected it, probably because you rightly saw that going at it that way cost more than you were willing to invest in any number of ways.”

Sadie: In one of your speeches, you made some fairly controversial comments including, “This equation that included business owners and business licenses, bottoms saying no and Tops moving like bees from spot to spot till they got what they wanted instead of just beating some sense into the nay-saying boy at hand… well, it was the turn that led into the unfortunate by-way we’re exploring now.” Some might argue that the scene now is far safer both physically and emotionally. Aside from the mysterious glamour of the early years, what exactly do you feel has been lost?

Joseph: “What has been lost? Let’s allow the answer above to suggest my answer to this question. But, there is no evidence for the assertion that the scene is safer now. The way things in the most visible leather world are now is perhaps a safer for these huge masses of people to have their ‘shot’ at leather/SM. I can easily accept that.

“Of course, I have to mention that, for me, without what you call ‘the mysterious glamour,’ SM is not worth typing two letters to mention it, much less is it worth getting dressed, finding a partner, learning how to do what the partner and I might do together… etc.”

Sadie: You write that, “In the 1980s there were at least two, maybe three genuinely tectonic shifts. The first was a great expansion of something I’ve already mentioned. People began to have “parties” instead of sessions, musters or gatherings. More and more people picked up the idea of calling whips and restraints and paddles TOYS.” Semantics aside, do you really feel that this more lighthearted approach has been detrimental? It seems to me that inclusion of straight people, as well as overt discussion about lifestyle can only be a healthier approach overall.

Joseph: “There is nothing more lighthearted in the scene today than there sometimes was in my earliest days in SM. We had good times. There was teasing and there were games. The episode’s silliness was, in effect, comic relief from the drama that was our lives in leather/SM.

“I think one of the greatest tragedies of modern popular thinking…leather community no more than anywhere…is the concept inherent in the phrase ‘semantics aside.’ We say things the way we do because that is the way we mean them. War, for example, is a word that pretty much represents the same idea of conflict to the people of any culture. In some ‘worlds’ however it is synonymous with glory, patriotism, death with honor, and so forth. In others, it is synonymous with tragedy, horror, terror, and such. We know something of the people who say the word ‘war’ if we know what other words go through their minds when they mention or hear the word. The same is true in the leather context.

“Again, I am not making a value judgment For Anyone But Myself. I make my choices, and I live with them. I might even go so far as to defend my choices to someone (particular individual) if I thought he or she might benefit from a clearer understanding of my point of view. But I do not prescribe my way of living as the cure for anyone else’s way of living.”

Sadie: You were recently in a few videos including Mark Frasier and Hardy Haberman’s “Out of the Darkness.” What was your role in this?

Joseph: “Actually, apart from being an interview subject and supplying some slight help with a few questions that I was not interviewed about, I had nothing to do with ‘Out of the Darkness.’ It is an excellent video, intended to be shown to police and other professionals to help them understand who we are. I have been involved in a few other projects with that intention…video and otherwise…but this is the one that I think came to the most useful final product.

“Other video, not counting porn, that I’ve been involved with are much the same, as far as my involvement is concerned. That is, I am usually just a subject in the videos. That is the case with Bob Dern’s outstanding ‘Safe Sane Consensual SM’ video, which I believe is still available. People think I had more to do with it only because, along with my slave scott, I am on the cover of the video as it is packaged commercially. But, that just happens to be a picture that captured the imagination of a lot of people. It was used on that video, on at least three magazine covers, in some advertising that I didn’t know about until after the fact, in several newsletters with and without permission, etc.

“Randy Riddle’s wonderful documentary about Tarheel Leather Club, ‘TLC: A Year with a Leather Club,’ is another one. I had nothing to do with it, but I am in it. It just happened that during the year of club activity that Riddle taped, Ruth Marks and I were ‘celebrity guests.’ (Their word, not mine. I’d have said celebutantes with tongue firmly planted in cheek.)

“I’ve also been taped many times doing classes and such, and have heard of some of those tapes traveling around, commercially and otherwise. That’s fine as far as I’m concerned. If any of your readers have been worried that I’ll find out about them selling or distributing tapes of me talking, teaching, lecturing, etc., they can stop worrying. Anyone and everyone who has any pictures or tapes of me can use them in any way that they believe is good for the leather community. I put it that way in case any of the monsters from Falwell’s Fascist Fellowship might have tapes too. They do not have permission to use them.”

Sadie: There’s a scene in Bob Dern’s video “Safe, Sane and Consensual an SM Documentary” ( where you and your submissive Scott are being interviewed. There’s a moment where you look down at him and there is a very real connection, something you wouldn’t expect to have been caught on film. I know also that Scott has since passed away, but I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about a relationship that had a connection that magical.

Joseph: “That is exactly what we have been talking about in this interview. My relationship with scott was, in terms of mechanics, pretty much formed along the lines of the habits (or protocols) I learned in the beginning. It was based on love and included the freedom we each accorded the other to ‘language’ our experience in spiritual terms.

“When scott was very ill…but not yet paralyzed or blind or delirious as he would eventually be…I was carrying him from the living room where we had done a flogging. Surely, the little physical activity in the flogging and the very tiny pain it caused would have been laughable at other times, but it was what we could have then and there, and we had it. His back was barely warm draped more than a little too limply across my arm. He was wavering in and out of sleep by them time I was placing him on the bed. The cool sheet woke him up enough to look at me and speak. ‘I can never thank you enough,’ he said, ‘for giving me this… this chance to have this life, to love this way….’ And he slipped into sleep with ‘love this way’ and a kiss on his lips. I was blown away. It was just the message I’d gotten from him, and it wasn’t just the fact that we had both just found a way to have a piece of our leather life in the midst of the illness we were struggling not to be brought down by. No, the main reason I was so remarkably touched was that, just before scott’s eyes opened, I told myself that when he woke, I needed to be there to thank him for giving me a chance to live the life we were experiencing. He was my slave, but our life was at least as much his gift to me as mine to him.”

Sadie: Bob Dern, the producer of that video commented in his interview with me that he had a mind-blowing experience in a demonstration with you at San Francisco State University. What are those demonstrations like for you?

Those classes at San Francisco State were great! I did them with quite a variety of partners both in the 600+ student version and the 20-35 student version, and I have heard over the years during and since that those classes were ‘turning points’ or ‘peak experiences’ or ‘magical’ from many of the participants. I don’t think this means I did anything all that great…after all, a demo is a demo and you can hardly get a real scene off the ground…but the fact that they stand out that way for so many shows that the interaction between curious but respectful outsiders and serious (if sometimes under-experienced) players can be stunning. The students, because they had the right to ‘waiver out’ of the class, were there by choice and because they were interested, and we had enough time and strange but adequate facilities. Dr. John DeCecco was the instructor for the big classes and his assistant John Elia taught most of the smaller ones, but all were extremely well prepared and, through five and a half years, not one of the classes ‘failed’ to rise to expectations that were set high early on. Thanks for the reminder. These are memories I enjoy.”

Sadie: You’ve commented that, “Celibacy is not “no-sex,” but a form of sexuality.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Joseph: “To not have sex is to not have sex, but to be celibate is to determine that your sexual energy will not be used for sexual gratification. To not have sex is to not use sexual energy, often to not even feel its presence. To be celibate is specifically to use sexual energy, to recognize it when it arises and to use it for other than pursuit-of-orgasm activities. Monks and priests and nuns are still human, but those who succeed in keeping the vow of celibacy do so not by suppressing sexual energy but by directing it to other ends: Worship, art, teaching, and so forth, often with a refinement that proves the presence of a high energy. Those who attempt to make celibacy a no-sex matter, usually fail eventually. The priests who are mired in the sexual abuse of children would seem likely to be ones who had the idea that celibacy meant resisting sex, rejecting sex, suppressing sex. That is very hard, if it is possible at all. But to have your ‘sex’ (reiteration of creation) in another way is not so hard.”

Sadie: You make the statement that, “Homosexuality is OK for the spiritual health of individuals who are homosexual, meaning anyone whose conscience embraces it.” Are you saying that homosexuality is bad by definition for people who haven’t resolved it yet?

Joseph: “Not at all. Of course, again, this was a statement made in a context of addressing hundreds of Christians; most of them trained for pastoral duties [referring to his Plenary Session lectures]. I’d have used very different language to say the same thing to just about anyone else.

“The phrase ‘individuals who are homosexual’ is to be taken extremely literally. If a person is unsure, curious or whatever, he or she is going to ‘be’ homosexual at moments and not at others. Fine, there is stuff to work out and no reason not to work it out.

“However, remembering the Christian and church-related context, one concern that some worshippers or church members have is that being homosexual may be sinful. My position is that homosexual…in the main…have no choice in the matter. That is, they are gay. It is a matter of being and not open to choice or reform. For these people, to do what is embraced by the idea of being homosexual is irrefutably non-sinful. Perfectly OK. They are able to love someone who is their same sex. All is well.

“Some people, however, do homosexual things for the purpose of shocking or transgressing or just being rebellious. They are able to hunger for the shock, but not to yearn for the same-sex partner. They are able to be thrilled by the transgression, but not elevated by the) inaccessible) love. They are able to be satisfied by the opportunity to rebel but not by the very act of sex which, for them, is not sexual expression but anger expression (or something of the sort).

“The key is in the possibility of loving.”

Sadie: You’ve been a member of the Metropolitan Community Church since 1969, a church known for its support of both gay and BDSM lifestyles. What do you find a church with this kind of orientation (if you will) offers your spiritual path?

Joseph: “Actually, I became a member of MCC very early on. Troy Perry, the founder, tells me that I was among the first 100 members, in fact. But I have not been an active member of MCC’s spiritual community through most of those years. I have attended MCC in Europe, Canada, many states of the U. S., but have made my own way spiritually. If I had found MCC as it is today, and I was the bewildered but seriously searching kid I was then, I’d embrace it and love it for all I am worth. There are leather affinity groups in many congregations where leather/SM folks can very specifically examine together the questions raised and the problems that seemed to be caused by their leather sexuality. They can also find the ways that they are uniquely qualified to contribute to the church community. This would be great. It was also wonderful all those years ago to find a Christian context in which being gay was not considered a state of disgrace, a sin beyond the pale and so forth.

“But, you know, the exciting thing about MCC is not so much that it embraces and welcomes gay and lesbian people, including gay and lesbian clergy. Nor is the best of it that there are church sanctioned groups of leather folk. No, the great thing is that it is a God-seeking context that admits, accepts, even celebrates the truth that humans are sexual beings; that just as we remain spiritual in the bedroom, we remain sexual in the sanctuary of the church. Of course, we don’t sing hymns (most of us don’t) in the dungeon, and we don’t perform acts of sex in the sanctuary. But neither do we have to pretend or lie or cover up anything. This is all very good.

“MCC’s open arms have been very supportive for all kinds of sexual minorities, more of them in fact than most people would guess there are. I took a troubled friend to one MCC congregation, many years ago, not sure what the result would be, but confident he would not be further hurt. He is a heterosexual cross-dresser, not transsexual or transgendered. He doesn’t mean to fool anybody, he just intends to satisfy his own needs. He was even willing to contain himself to the point of wearing the women’s clothes only at home, only with the drapes closed, only at specific times if need be, but he could not go to a pastor who required him to not admit it was happening. At MCC, he found a home, and eventually brought several of his friends to the church because they were having the same soul-crushing experience.

“I suspect that just about everyone in the entire leather/SM/fetish world who is not violently anti-God, could find a home or at least a pleasant experience at MCC. Their Christianity is not the lost-sinner damned-to-hell brand sold by televangelists like Falwell. It is something else; something made of love in a way that leaves you thinking ‘this is what a church should be.’ ”

Sadie: While there are pockets of discussion about BDSM & spirituality, it does seem that for the most part discussion of toys and safety dominates. What do you think it would take to bring this discussion to the table on a more regular basis? Do you think that the prevailing religious views in America will allow for a broader contemplation of these topics?

Joseph: “Well, I don’t think we need to be talking about spirituality all the time. I even wonder how much more we need than we have been having. Of course, at the moment, there is a gap developing. But, in fact, I have spoken on topics within the range of leathersex and spirituality in the context of no fewer than 200 leather/SM events, probably more. I have also noticed such subjects on the programs of many more events, and sometimes attended the presentations. In a weekend event where there may be 10 to 75 classes, lectures, panels, etc., if there is one well-presented discussion of spirituality, it is enough. Others talk about the same subject in other languages. They talk about whether love is appropriate between SM partners, or they lecture about the difference between the dynamics of a ‘real’ scene and those of abuse. There are infinite ways in which we talk about spirituality all the time. Some are obvious: Wicca and SM, What’s God Got to Do with It? Love in Master/slave Contexts, etc. Others are not so obvious, but this way and that, they touch or even explore spiritual territory: How Much After-Care Does a Top Owe a Bottom?, Do Bottoms Have Rights?, How to Hurt Someone Even When You Care for Her, etc.”

Sadie: In your chapter on the Spiritual Dimensions of Bondage, in Mark Thompson’s book Leatherfolk, You write that, “To extend into spirituality, a man may go head first as the yogis do, body first as fakirs do, heart first as monks do, or he may attempt the perilous task of going sexuality first as in certain tantric paths.” I realize this may be a book in itself, but this approach has come up in several other places as well. Could you explain it a little bit more for our readers?

Joseph: “I honestly don’t know how to say it more clearly in less than a major essay. I think this is one of those things which, if it does not come clear with some thought, should just be set aside and let go. Later, if the idea is kept alive and not tortured with over-zealous investigation, it will become clear.”

Sadie: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Joseph: “If they are really readers, and they have found this talk interesting, it might be useful to look up my books and a few that my work is also found in. My own titles are Flogging (back in print shortly); Leathersex: A Guide for the Curious Outsider and the Serious Player; Leathersex Q & A. And, even though the two Leathersex title were written from my own perspective “gay man, etc.”they have been very interesting to a lot of women and men of all sexual sorts. My work, and that of some other thoughtful leatherfolks, is also to be found SM Classics, Leatherfolk, Different Loving. I also very highly recommend Guy Baldwin’s book: Ties That Bind. I edited and added notes to Ties That Bind, but even if you skipped all those and read only Guy’s words, it would be a tremendous experience and a pleasant challenge, I think.

“Otherwise, just thank you. Or, as we say here in Hawaii, mahalo.”

Sadie: Thank you very much!

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