Doing vs Being – Labelling Identity

I said I wanted to talk about kinky things, so to get us started here’s another comment-turned-full-length-post that I wrote a long time ago, edited and updated for you all. The starting point was a post by Cliff titled ‘What am I?‘ that was all about labels and descriptors and how we can get ourselves all tangled up in the labels we and others apply to ourselves, to the exclusion of what actually is.

Labels are helpful when they act as signposts to help us find others in similar situations and they ease conversations when the people involved use the same meanings. But, when people have differing meanings, and when they, for ease of thought, think and act as if the label is the whole reality of the person it’s applied to, problems arise. It’s a habit we readily apply to others and it’s also easy to do to ourselves. We get wrapped up in the shorthand description and start measuring everything we are by it. We worry about how x behaviour makes us less y, and we worry that because we do m that makes us n, and when n conflicts with y we get really stressed out, because what does that make us? An example from my own life: I discovered I liked Industrial music but I also still loved listening to pop, so did that make me less Goth? Would I be goth-enough for the in-crowd to accept me? Was I still Goth if I didn’t own a pair of New Rocks and didn’t have permanent synthetic dreads because of work? Worry, worry, stress, stress.

How many identities do you have?

How many identities do you have?

What we are great at ignoring is that it is possible for different identities to co-exist in the same person. The things we think define us do not make us. It is possible to be different things to different people in different situations and yet maintain internal integrity. If the labels aren’t making life easier, bin them! They are descriptors, not reality. The boxes people put us in are not the sole extent of our identities, and just because coming to terms with those identities and building a coherent self out of them is bloody hard work, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

How does this relate to sexuality and kink? Well, when I first began to discover that I liked being hit and when I finally began to accept that I am capable of falling in lust and love with women, I had a bit of a crisis. My upbringing said that none of this was okay, it said I was bad and sinful for liking what I liked, and that did an absolute number on my self-identity. The labels that applied to these things I liked – bi, kinky, submissive – none of them fit what what I thought I knew about myself, and they carried huge connotations that just did not sit well with me at all. The also conflicted with other ideals I still cherish, such as female independence, autonomy and strength, feminism in other words. Coming to terms with it took a lot of reading and thought, and writers like Cliff Pervocracy, Greta Christina and Clarisse Thorn were my life-savers.

Part of the breakthrough was reconsidering the ideas I subconsciously attached to the labels I didn’t like. I realised I had very fixed notions of what a submissive was (female) and that those connotations (weak, people-pleaser, doormat, cowed/fearful little girl) did not describe my experiences and preferences in the slightest. What I subconsciously pictured when I heard the word ‘sub’ was most definitely what I did not want to be. I wanted the roles to be something we deliberately and consciously engaged in as equals and since the terminology/ideas I picked up from the mainstream didn’t reflect this, they had to go. Taking on submissive roles was a liberating experience for me, and I found it encouraged me to really start to figure out what I did and did not want.

The second part of the breakthrough is reflected in this quote from one of Cliff commenters:

“Labels and the preconceived notions people have about them can be very limiting… replacing the “what you are” label with a “what I do/like to do” label can be really helpful in untangling this stuff. You can stress out about whether you count as a “real” switch, or you can take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.”

Swapping “what am I?” for “what do I do?” turned my thinking on it’s head because it let me see that the things I do, do not in fact define who I am. For example, I’m a scientist, I’m a re-enactor, I’m a jitsuka, and I’m a goth. I am those things even when I’m not actively participating in them, yet at the same time they are not all there is to me. I’d almost go so far as to say that kink is a hobby of sorts. But don’t get me wrong, just because it’s a “hobby”, it’s no less a part of me and no less important or necessary for my well-being than good food and good friends are. I realised, as in my struggle for self-acceptance when I discovered ‘goth’, I’d become so caught up in what I thought the minimum entry standard was and whether I matched up, that I lost sight of what was important – my ability to relax, enjoy and be myself.

I can do and be many things, but the things I do are not all that I am. I can be certain things, without those things being all that I am. Remember this and use it wisely, because reducing people to a single simple label makes it easy to other and dismiss them, and that never leads to good.