Posted by on May 1, 2016 in Challenging narratives, Common Myths, education, oppression, race, sex, sex education, Sexuality, shibari, tokenism, Uncategorized | 3 comments

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of giving a Webinar type presentation for University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh’s Sex week on BDSM. I gave a 101 version of my sound relationship dungeon and opened the floor up to a Q and A.

I got asked a lot of good questions by the students in the audience. Seriously, as we say here in New England, those kids are wicked smaht. I’m still chewing on a number of the questions I was asked. One question I’m still mulling over was whether Shibari (style of Japanese rope bondage) was a form of cultural appropriation.

I answered by saying that I didn’t think so. At least, not automatically. I gave a nutshell (and hopefully not entirely inaccurate) history of modern Shibari practice, at least in the US. And I referred them to Midori, because… Midori.

If I had a chance to field that question now, I think my response would be a bit different.

According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation is “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.”

So, in the strictest sense of the term, Shibari is absolutely cultural appropriation. In Internet vernacular, however, the connotation of cultural appropriation is that it is pernicious; a dominant culture co-opting elements of an oppressed culture in a way that further perpetuates the power imbalance.

For example, when I was a kid, I went to a summer camp in North Carolina. Every week, we’d have themed dinners. The kitchen would make something other than usually camp-food fare, and we would decorate the dining hall to match the theme. One night was an Asian night. Our counsellors found some random kanji they thought looked cool and made banners vaguely resembling those forms. I also have vague memories of two very blond swimming counselors dressing up as sumo wrestlers and making grunts at each other. The act seemed innocuous at the time, but in retrospect, I was complicit in reducing an entire constellation of history, culture, and tradition to an offensive cardboard cutout. The fact that it didn’t occur to me to question my counselors is what troubles me to this day.

I often struggle with the concept of appropriation. I don’t question that appropriation is definitely a thing, that it can be potentially harmful to oppressed cultures and ethnicities. I also recognize that a certain degree of cultural fusion is a normal part of human social development. Where does acceptable cultural fusion end and colonial appropriation begin?

Maybe it’s better to think of appropriation as a spectrum, instead of a binary when thinking about relative negative impact. Where does Shibari fall?

My initial response is that Shibari, more often than not, falls on the innocuous side of the spectrum for a couple of reasons.

First of all, in the Shibari community, there is a strong focus on education, skills building, and learning not just how to tie a harness, but where these ties come from. There is a deference to the source material.

Second, Shibari is very much a living art form, and highly improvisational in nature. Shibari teaches a basic vocabulary of patterns and hitches that a rigger can use to express their own style and personality. Ask any rope bottom… Two riggers can tie the exact same tie, but the experience will be completely different. What makes Shibari so compelling isn’t it’s exoticism… If anything, it’s the intimacy that Shibari fosters and its infinite possibilities.

On the other hand, it would be naive of me to presume that there are no exploitative elements of Shibari. For one, most Shibari erotica depicts tiny naked Asian women suspended in contorted positions. It is not unusual for riggers of all ethnicities to wear Asian robes while tying. Is this a Practical clothing choice? Sign of deference? Cultural tokenism? Some combination thereof?

What do you think?