There’s evidence that D.H. Lawrence enjoyed an erotic power exchange relationship with his wife, that James Joyce was into scat (among other things), and that Oscar Wilde—well, most of us know what Oscar Wilde liked. These literary geniuses explored radical sexual agency and desire in their work and in their relationships, but little beyond rumors and personal letters exist to tell us what they themselves thought of their turn-ons and the ways in which those dovetailed with their writing. Even if space for such a discourse and community had existed back then, Lawrence, Joyce and Wilde couldn’t freely discuss their sexuality. As it was, they faced censorship and generated scandal wherever they went, and of course Wilde went to prison for his sexual behavior.
Although our world is still intolerant of sexual difference, I want to believe we’re at a point where people can speak openly about the consensual ways we express our erotic selves. And I’m interested in the connections between those private expressions and the larger, more public work we do in the world. This series is meant as a forging of community; a validation of that which gets called sexual deviance; and a proud celebration of the complex, fascinating ways that humans experience desire.
In this ongoing series of short personal essays, writers in all genres—novelists, poets, journalists, and more—explore the intersection between our literary lives and practices and our BDSM and fetishistic lives and practices. In other words, these essays aren’t about writing about non-normative sex: rather, it’s a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work.
If you have questions or comments, or if you’re a writer who would like to contribute, please contact me at [email protected].
–Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
Playing a Part: Imposter Syndrome in Literary and Kink Communities
I’m a poet and a bottom, but I worry I’m not good at being either.
Imposter syndrome describes an inability to recognize one’s own accomplishments; it’s a persistent belief that one is in some way a fraud, about to be found out. It’s common enough in the work world, but this fear is practically an epidemic in the London poetry scene, where the small, incestuous community meets the skewed portrait gallery of social media. Mosey onto Facebook on a bad day and you’ll inevitably end up stepping on a rake. Then another rake. And another: fellow writers talking about fellowships, prizes, and gigs they’ve received (omitting, of course, all the rejected applications, the everyday stresses, and the let-downs they’ve no doubt also experienced). It’s hard not to feel that you’re out of place among them.
Art is a career, a passion, or both, with markers of success, from readings and invitations to teaching gigs and awards. But surely this wouldn’t apply to kink. How can you feel fraudulent about what turns you on?
Earlier this year, I met a group of kinky friends for a trip to the London Alternative Market, a monthly fetish fair. It’s something we do semi-regularly and a good excuse to get together. This time, though, something felt wrong. In that market environment, surrounded by the symbols and representatives of the kinks I enjoy, I was lost and alienated.
I realized later that I’d felt oddly threatened. I’d been low on funds, and none too tempted by the merchandise—I was there mostly to hang out with mates. But not buying anything in a market aimed expressly at people like me had left me feeling like an outsider in my own tribe. While friends showed off their new floggers, canes, and gags, I questioned why I was there, even though I knew I was a dyed-in-the-wool pervert. Lord knows how much time I’d wasted in my youth playing Whack-a-Mole with my fetishes, suppressing my true desires. So why, standing there in that market, having finally embraced all of this, did I feel like a fraud?
The thing I’m into is corporal punishment, and like any niche interest, it’s married to a market. Tops, switches, bottoms, and those in between discuss and shop for equipment, outfits, materials. There’s a thriving porn industry putting red bottoms and strapped hands on screens across the world. And while this is healthy and good and provides an income for many small businesses, it can prompt a pressure to buy in order to be.
Poetry is far less lucrative than porn, but as writers, we pay for courses, degrees, mentoring, and retreats in order to enhance our profiles. External validation, usually through prizes, residencies, or plum roles, is a lot further from our control. We can’t buy a coveted award or fellowship; instead, we rely on a panel of judges to give us recognition for our art. When we don’t get this affirmation, we are left wondering why, and making up rationales in our minds. They know that our work is bad. They have marked us as non-poets. They have found us out as stowaways and we’re about to get thrown off the ship.
Even placing as a runner-up fails to alleviate this worry. Chances are you know the person who won the top prize, and this brings the comparison between your respective careers a lot closer to home. If you know them on social media, you see this trophy as further proof of their legitimacy—and further proof of your own lack thereof. Being close friends with successful peers tempts you to compare, contrast, and find yourself wanting. The comedian Joyce Grenfell’s sketch “The Worrier” springs to mind. In this sketch, the speaker enters a local raffle to win a cruise. Instead, she wins the consolation prize of a dead rabbit. The cruise winner, her nemesis, strolls up and exclaims before everyone, “Oh look! You’ve won a lovely rabbit!” Why, yes. Yes I have.
Feeling legit in kink is about the construction and maintenance of an identity, and spending money is just one way of shoring that up. Once you’re out, even if it’s under an online pseudonym, there’s pressure to mark your turf, to express yourself, to say what’s unique about you, and to be noticed. To be adventurous, available, active. One of my earliest worries was that I couldn’t “take” as much physical punishment as other people, and would thereby disappoint my partner. I was fortunate to meet a top who clarified that it should be less about what the bottom can take, and more about what they need—there is, after all, more than one way to skin a brat. Still, it took a while to internalize that.
The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by psychology researchers Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in a 1978 paper on high-achieving women. But nearly forty years in the public awareness hasn’t brought us any closer to defeating it. If anything, the immediacy and ubiquity of social media have exacerbated the assault on our sense of self. “Status anxiety” is a newer term, but it’s been around since the ancients and is closely cousined to imposter syndrome. As Facebook will confirm, everyone but everyone is having a better, hotter, more successful time than us.
The pressure to prove ourselves can have a distorting effect, causing us to doubt our instincts in favor of following others we perceive to be experts or “genuine.” Having shucked off our intuition, we become more vulnerable than ever.
There’s a certain type of self-appointed expert kinky folks refer to as the One-True-Wayer: someone so adamant that their approach is the correct one that they shout down or discredit anyone who dissents or offers an alternative model. In a kink context, the One-True-Wayer might be a seasoned veteran married to their modus operandi, a rookie player basing their declarations on just a few interactions, or a predator pursuing their own agenda at all costs. Attractive or charismatic people on certain forums can accrue such a devoted fan club of yes-men/women that they turn into kink Caligulas, decreeing and decrying, defended to the hilt by swains or co-conspirators. The bubble of a site can mean they never see their authority questioned, and for newbies, the opinions presented as fact can undermine their own judgement.
That’s where imposter syndrome stops being about existential angst, and enters a darker realm altogether. In the aftermath of Fifty Shades of Grey, there was an understandable rush by BDSM players to insist that the manipulative, imbalanced relationship portrayed in the book was not representative of BDSM in general. That we talked, that we were hyperaware of the nuances of consent, that we were more emotionally intelligent. That we were not abusers.
It’s true enough that there is a lot of good talk about consent, roles, and desire in BDSM, but as kink writer Ayako Black points out in an article for The Daily Dot, it is dangerous to imagine that kink is a utopia, free from the abuse of power and authority. She describes phoning a friend after an early playdate:
“It was so hot,” I told her.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “You don’t sound okay.”
“No, it was great, he was so dominant. It was like my fantasies,” I told her in a voice that belied my anxieties, wanting to sound brave and adventurous. I didn’t want to admit that maybe I hadn’t been on board for everything. I was smarter than that, wasn’t I? I must have wanted it.
Black goes on to describe new community members experiencing abuse at the hands of popular event hosts and established authority figures in their circles. She talks of the automatic disbelief of the abuser’s followers, the insinuation that the accusing newbie must not know what they are doing, must not be a true submissive. She discusses the pressure on the victim to shut up about their experience, to feel that it was all a misunderstanding. Add this to the feelings of imposter syndrome already present for a nervous newcomer and you get a person less likely to speak out or question what is happening to them. By this point it is clear to them that status constitutes a hall pass for abuse.
Poetry has also experienced such dark days, with the assault allegations against alt-lit high-roller Tao Lin, and the accompanying apologists. The message to those newer or less well-known seems to be that the word of established names holds more weight than theirs. Poetry can be surprisingly feudal, and this does nothing to alleviate the scrabble for prizes and status, of anxiety about never being heard or feeling legitimate.
And sometimes an individual is so fixated on forging or maintaining their identity as an artist that they lose the art in the process. Take the issue of plagiarism in poetry. In the last few years, a number of poets have been caught out appropriating the work of others, with some even winning prizes for the stolen work. The perpetrators are not always new, lesser-known writers, but sometimes those who are at a mid-point or further in their careers. One theory on plagiarism suggests a desperate, compulsive need by an individual to gain traction and status, even at the risk of losing any legitimate progress they have made. The poet and writer Katy Evans-Bush suggests plagiarism may even be a form of self-harm. Is it another case of wanting to belong at all costs?
Any community that hopes to thrive should welcome new members, particularly those from underrepresented groups, and seek to let them know about options, resources, and the expected code of conduct. This won’t stop newbies having low self-confidence, or feeling green for a while. But this period of uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the newcomer is willing to learn and able to question when existing norms don’t make sense.
Poetry and perversion are not unrelated as practices. Kink is not just a lifestyle: it’s an art form. It is continually developing, fed by new ideas, new models, and new resources. Similarly, poetry, which comes with plenty of hierarchies and assumptions, should embrace the future while acknowledging the past. It should be ready to consider people speaking out for the first time not as interlopers to be silenced but as people who might contribute to understanding and improving the scene as a whole.
In both kink and poetry, I’ve met young or new participants with more maturity, compassion, and understanding than many of their older or more experienced counterparts. Part of my own insecurity in kink comes from joining the scene at the ripe old age of thirty and meeting people who’d been exploring and hosting munches since their teens. I’ve also met seasoned scenesters with wonderfully open minds.
I’ve realized that I will never gain enough experience or prestige to ward off imposter syndrome for good; even those at the top feel like frauds sometimes. It’s not about tooling up: it’s about learning to give fewer shits about where we rank. And that’s a work in progress. One thing is certain: I could never give up either of these weird worlds, because as much as they make me doubt my identity, they also help to shape it.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.