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Race and Sexual Fantasies

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On the edge of edgy sex, racial BDSM excites some and reviles others

Mollena Williams is gregarious, the kind of woman who makes a point of saying, "How are you today?" to the Walgreens cashier. She has a short afro and laughs easily. She works as an administrative assistant and at night, she pens her theater performances. She is also a masochist.

Williams is part of San Francisco's BDSM community (shorthand for "bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism"). By definition, a masochist receives pleasure from experiencing certain types of pain. By her own account, Williams loves pleasing her partners. That might mean a whipping. It might also mean obeying her partner's commands or being called a "slut." Her partners aren't strangers. Like non-BDSM people, she expects to feel a connection and develop trust--enough to submit to a partner for the hour or the day or the week that they agree to. And she, in turn, expects a lot. Her partners have to be comforting, quick thinking, and treat her like the princess she's always felt herself to be.

Contrary to popular notions, BDSM is not about abuse. It's consensual and trusting and people refer to it as "play" (as in "I want to play with you"). The point of BDSM is not sexual intercourse. In fact, when Williams recalls her first experience as a masochist seven years ago, she says she met her partner, a white man, at a bar and "fell in love at first sight." They made their way back to his hotel. "For the first time, I felt someone could see who I really was." And that was someone who found it erotic to be a submissive to her partner.

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In recent years, Williams has added another element to her repertoire as a masochist. She's begun to engage in what is called "race play" or "racial play"--that is getting aroused by intentionally using racial epithets like the word "nigger" or racist scenarios like a slave auction. Race play is being enjoyed in the privacy of bedrooms and publicly at BDSM parties, and it's far from just black and white. It also includes "playing out" Nazi interrogations of Jews or Latino-on-black racism, and the players can be of any racial background and paired up in a number of ways (including a black man calling his black girlfriend a "nigger bitch"). White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations.

Race play is considered on the edge of edgy sex, but workshops on the subject are becoming standard fare at kinky conferences as people like Williams become comfortable with publicly speaking about it. Like any practice making its way into public conversations, the workshops include everything from personal testimonials to theories on why people of color are getting aroused by what some would see as just racism. Like any controversial sexual activity, race play has its critics. In May, the title of a workshop at a BDSM conference had to be changed after protest over the original name, "Nigger Play: Free at Last." Williams herself has been the subject of several e-mails from people of color who, while enjoying BDSM themselves, accuse her of self-hate and recommend she enter therapy.

But Williams doesn't seem self-hating. If she is, then she's pretty darn happy talking about her writing and desire to find a good man. If race play is not about hate, then what is it about? What does it mean for a person of color to be aroused by words like "nigger" or "spic"? For the people that I talked to, it's made them neither freaks nor Uncle Toms.

Teaching Race Play

There are about as many ways to engage in BDSM as there are theories for why it arouses. For some, BDSM is having your boyfriend yank your hair and mumble a naughty word like "whore" during sex. For others, it is whips, chains and hot wax--all done in public before an audience in a space that's been converted to a dungeon.

Psychologists from Freud on down have speculated on BDSM's appeal. Perhaps the most common perception is that it's a way of working through childhood trauma. But some say it's more akin to psychological theater where you abandon your mundane life role (all those responsibilities!) and act like a master or slave, for example. Still, others conjecture that BDSM alters body chemistry or proffers a spiritual connection.

In his coauthored book, Bound to Be Free, Dr. Charles Moser has put out what might be the most sensible theory, calling BDSM just another type of relationship. It's consensual and erotic, he writes. People find it erotic to act like they have complete control over another person (or pretending that they give up control). It also has its own rules: people agree at the outset what the limits are.

Needless to say there are countless conferences, websites and parties, all of which loosely make up the "BDSM community." It was at one such conference in May that Mike Bond was to present "Nigger Play," a workshop on using the word "nigger" as part of race play. But a small public outcry from fellow kinky people, many of them apparently people of color, on several electronic listservs devoted to BDSM resulted in a change to the more demure, "Dancing with the Devil." Ironically perhaps, people did not seem to object to the content, just to the word "nigger" being in the title.

Mike Bond, who declined a phone interview and answered questions by e-mail, is a masochist. He is a black man and emphatic that race play "is not a message about all of black kind." He doesn't suggest that all black folks enjoy what he does, but he says, "I have been floored when people have criticized me by saying [that] not everyone agrees with my fetish. So what? Not everyone likes cheese."

During his workshop, Bond told the audience about his own history. He first considered race play when a partner asked if it was humiliating for him as a black man to bow before her, a white woman. He hadn't thought about it before. "But if that made it more embarrassing," he said, "then I was all for it."

On the panel with Bond were three white women he has played with. They emphasized that race play isn't about hate. For one woman calling Bond "nigger" was just another bad name that aroused him. But another woman, who is Jewish, said it took time and encouragement to be able to relax with race play.

After the talk came the demonstration: A woman dressed in a business suit and planted in the audience heckled Bond, then grabbed him by the collar and threw him down, all the while yelling about what gave Bond the right to criticize "her people" (rednecks).

As arousing as that scene might be for some, it is downright repulsive for others. Racism was institutionalized as social, economic and legal practices, in part, through rape and the white domination of black sexuality. Chupoo, who is a black woman and declined to give her last name, says it point blank: "I can't do race play because I have people in my family who had to submit to that, where they had no choices. It's too close to home for American black people." Race play makes her think about her grandmother who had to sleep with her employer, a doctor, so that her children could have healthcare.