Not an Odalisque

The Politics of the Collar

with 4 comments

This article appeared in the Guardian this morning, about a midwife who was dismissed from work for wearing a silver collar. The collar symbolises her status as a (willing) slave in a loving relationship. At an employment tribunal, she argued this was discriminatory because the collar, as a symbol of her beliefs, is equivalent to a religious symbol. I don’t know the details of her dismissal, which may really be about who makes the tea or whether she tends to tell bad jokes, so I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of it. The politics of the situation interests me, though. Should I, as a fellow fetishist (albeit not a collar-wearing type), see her as a kinky crusader, or another person determined to make us all seem a bit, well, odd?

The most ubiquitous relationship symbol is the ring. We all know what it means, and almost all married people wear them. And marriage is the dominant relationship form. Wearing a wedding ring is telling the world, “My sexuality isn’t strange or threatening, it’s kept within bounds. There’s no need to be frightened, I’m just like you.” It is literally legitimising. And although we all know that there are married people who have affairs, sometimes with people of their own sex, visit prostitutes, whip serving girls, etc, it is noticeable that heterosexuality and monogamy are almost universally expected of the married couple. Your friend who likes to take drugs and have unprotected sex with strangers in dark rooms is a riskier dinner party invitation than the married one. The married one might, nowadays, have a male partner, who spends time with him making gourmet food in their granite-surfaced kitchen (yes, you’re learning a bit about my background), and legitimisation explains a lot about why so many want gay marriage. That man, when he settles down, wouldn’t mind the symbol that shows he’s part of your club.

The problem, though, is that the more we contribute to the idea that marriage is the norm, the harder we make it for everyone else. In my day to day life I find it absolutely infuriating that everyone assumes I’m straight and monogamous. People around me make jokes about dykes and transsexuals, ask if I have a boyfriend, never a girlfriend, and take the answer as an indicator of my availability. And if the monogamous masses assuming I’m one of them is annoying, it’s nothing in comparison to the pressure when I do get involved with a man. Suddenly everyone assumes I’m on the road to monogamous wedded blissness. You can fight that among friends, but your commitment to your lesbian lover probably isn’t something to bring up with the boyfriend’s family over Easter lunch.

The prevailing assumption of heterosexual monogamy legitimised by marriage makes life that little bit more difficult for the rest of us. The teenager who thinks he’s broken believes it partially because he don’t know of anyone who likes boys, or non-consent, or polyamory, he only sees a monolithic wall of marriage obscuring the true variety of relationships. It creates an atmosphere in which any public figure’s non-monogamy or visits to a pro-domme are titillating news. People have to hide who they are, so it’s a self-perpetuating system of pain and fear. And not the good kind.*

Sharing our kinky identities would normalise alternative relationships. We’ve come a long way with homosexuality just by going on about it until people stopped being shocked. So should we wear our collars with pride?

Even though it is one of the most prevalent symbols in the BDSM community, the collar is only meaningful to a very small group of people, those participating in a Domination/submission dynamic to a peculiar degree. A brief search brought up a large number of symbols pertinent to my situation which I’ve never come across before. Since I’m a (kind of) bisexual seeing a polyamorous married bear, in a relationship with D/s elements, do I need a charm-collar to show all my proclivities to the world?

Heaping importance on the collar surely invites the proliferation of symbols. It may be terribly important to me to express that I’m a queer promiscuous pansexual bottom as oppose to a bisexual polyamorous submissive, but only people already in my community will know what I’m on about. And people get so terribly het up about symbols. Whenever I begin to think they’re harmless I remember that the Holy Cross school trouble, which involved adults shouting swear words and throwing stones at primary school children (and ended with a pipe bomb), started with a dispute over the location of a flag. Yes, it’s an extreme example there’s no tool to rouse emotion like a symbol.

I can’t help feeling that symbols are ultimately divisive. So we legitimise your relationship by recognising your collar, and the girl who wants her princess dynamic recognised through her tiara is left out in the cold. How many do we have to accept before we’ve given everyone’s identity the recognition it deserves? In my perfect world symbols would proliferate until they lost all meaning, or the dominant ones would lose their ascendency. It would be lovely if wedding rings, like gifts of lingerie, declarations of love or promises of beatings, made a personal, not a public, statement.

I don’t feel any political allegiance to the woman with the slave collar. I do hope, though, in the interests of increasing the amount of freedom and happiness in the world, that she wins her appeal. Surely she’s been through more than enough to be allowed to wear that collar.

*You might be reading this thinking “But I’m extremely happy in my heterosexual monogamous relationship and I don’t see what’s wrong with making a lifelong commitment to my man, throwing a big party and making our friends buy us a lot of expensive kitchenware.” Well, I suppose there isn’t, although I think you could give something back and buy a single friend a nice dinner service or some Le Creuset. Just be aware that you’re contributing to others’ difficulties by using the system that suits you so well. You can do more than wring your hands about it. Ian Goggin and Kristin Skarsholt refuse to participate in inequality from their position of privilege.

Written by Not an Odalisque

August 17, 2011 at 1:34 am

4 Responses

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  1. As ever, a fascinating post; I loved reading your thoughtful explanation of the various issues.

    Pondering what you said, I do think I wear my own wedding ring as a “personal, not a public, statement” – partly, by wearing it on my right hand (as would be done in Haron’s native land) not my left (as here). I know that if she glances at it, she’ll see that small visible sign of the commitment I’ve made to her; likewise I do when I notice it or play (incessantly!) with it on my finger. What the rest of the world sees or thinks isn’t relevant – but then our marriage is scarcely traditional! Even being married is quite unusual amongst our circle of friends, albeit they too (whatever their orientation and kink interest) do largely seem to aspire to finding that form of relationship, for whatever reason(s).

    The issue is perhaps more what other people think – the broader community’s assumptions and prejudices. Does wearing a particular symbol happily and proudly encourage others to understand lifestyles that are, in some way, different to the perceived norm? Does *not* wearing it suggest hiding one’s interests, orientation, choices – and thus effectively shore up the status quo, where only one symbol denoting one relationship style is seen as acceptable?

    Yet how many symbols might one then end up wearing? And who defines the symbols: who out there’s going to tell me what I ought to wear to show that I’m variously married, poly, open, straight, kinky, into spanking, love darker play behind closed doors?

    That, though, merely emphasises your point that wearing symbols for *public* consumption isn’t necessarily a sound solution. It comes back, to me, to the private choice to express oneself as one wishes. If the woman in the court case wants, for herself, to wear a collar, why shouldn’t she – provided it’s not in an situation where that could cause health/safety issues or openly offend others? But there are working environment where conformity is actually OK – a uniform, a dress code – where taking the job implies willingness to adhere to the published standards. I guess here it becomes particularly interesting: if subtle, visible deviations from the dress code norm are acceptable for some forms of lifestyle / orientation, is it right – or discriminatory – to ban others? Is it, perhaps, the lack of subtlety of a large collar compared to a small ring that creates the problem?

    (And why stop at the debate about sexual orientation / proclivity – hey, there’s a whole arena of discussion about religious symbols that perhaps isn’t far removed from this one. But let’s not go there!)

    I’m waffling, as I often do after such a thought-provoking post, and I’m not sure quite what my conclusion is – other than the hope on a personal level that these kinky folks do get what they personally want via the courts, and a thought that in trying to fight for her right to wear her collar to work in such a trail-blazing way, she really is being rather brave and deserves our respect for that.


    August 17, 2011 at 6:57 am

  2. I think your point about material objects of affection or relationships should be personal rather than public is surely not answering or developing your first point about the ubiqutous nature of symbols of hetero-normative marriage.

    The midwife in question wears her collar at work, and it has been established that it doesn’t break rules of health and safety, but there may be issues about her not conforming to an agreed standard of dress code.

    My father has been a married man throughout all but a brief period of his professional life. He has never worn a wedding ring (perhaps because he has never felt the need, or perhaps because of the impractical faffing of cross-contamination). As a man his title has never changed due to marriage, although it has changed twice due to his professional role and study. I suspect for him in the workplace, expressing the personal or socio-political significance of being a married man doesn’t show in material objects. Although he used to take one of his infant children out to Govan to do domicillaries in days gone by, but that was so his car wasn’t lifted.

    The kippot or the hijab are material manifestations to the world in ones daily dress that you hold a faith or maintain links with a broader social tribe or grouping. Both perfectly ordinary articles of dress are public symbols of something deeper than simply ‘muslim’ or ‘jew’. For men the corporeal evidence of this will be hidden in their breeks, one would assume. The hijab for example is not cited in the qu’ran. The only reference to veiling is that a womans breasts should be kept covered, and it’s agreed that in all female company one should veil the area between the waist and the knees to be modest. An unveiled muslim woman is not any less of a muslim than one wearing a jilbab or burqha. What that piece of cloth means to the wearer will be complex and more profound than ‘that’s what you do’ or a statement of Islamic conformity. For some it may feel like a statement of personal submission to God. Is it somehow redundant if someone else who sees a woman in a hijab thinks something else when they look at her?

    Who knows how many kinky/Ds people exist? How many choose to make this public? This is difficult to pinpoint. A manifest statement of a personal dynamic may only fully register to fellow perverts at arms, although I don’t imagine that is the primary or sole intention of a collar bearer. Actively choosing and committing to submit to another, or indeed come under their ownership and protection is a profound step to take as an adult. You will come under fire from others, but that is the least of the toil you choose to take for another individual, personally, psychologically and spiritually. If that adult feels something material is not necessary, or they can get by with a smaller, less visible symbol then all credit to them.

    We live in a perversely secular word of iconography of materialistic labels such as D&G. Why not change and live in a world of deeper identifiers like D/S or M/s?

    I’m a fervent atheist and would fight with tooth and claw to defend my right to not wear a uniform identifier of my race or creed*. I would therefore equally defend the right of others who choose to wear symbols of theirs. That said a symbol doesn’t give you license to remove the civil liberties or attack others (as referred to in your reference to the holy cross). No-one would die or get mamed if this midwife dresses differently, but I truly believe that by removing all personal symbols or identifiers you can negate a person’s sense of self. How else would you propose challenging or dissenting the perceived narrow norm?

    *I struggle not to loudly instruct someone where to swivel on the rare occassion someone asks if I’m rangers or celtic.

    Isobella Lash

    August 18, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    One of the things I hope for from posts like this is that people will ponder, so I’m pleased to read you did, Abel. I think it’s very easy to think a choice is entirely personal, although we all know that we make our choices in a context. All of that said, I admit that I didn’t unpick the contradictions in the notion of marriage as a personal statement. The fact that it’s a public declaration, usually made in front of the people most important in your lives, is probably a defining element. To answer your opening, Isobella, my point about the ubiquity of the symbol of marriage was meant to gesture towards its hegemony, which, I think, is difficult to challenge with other symbols because of the weakening brought about by proliferation. My utopian wish for the symbol to wane in power is a reaction to my failure to find a way for it to be effectively challenged, publically, by other symbols.

    I find uniforms difficult in general, and the more prescriptive they are the more uncomfortable they make me. I think anything de-individualising is ethically dangerous, but that’s a whole other issue. In the real world, I once had a job which stipulated a particular shade of lipstick, and at age 16 my school was still making me wear those blue check dresses. I didn’t quit my job or demand to attend the local comprehensive. I avoided the question of whether the midwife should be allowed to wear the collar, Isobella, because as a liberal I of course think that she should, but that view isn’t going to gain much ground. Whether her fight to do so is as political as it is personal was a question I wanted to explore because, as you point out, Abel, she can be seen as a trail-blazer.

    I haven’t solved the problem of how to transform society so that everyone thinks alternative sexualities are great, but since you ask, Isobella, I’ve started by writing a mainstream novel about them.

    Thank you both again for your comments.

    Not an Odalisque

    August 19, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    • Great post. I haven’t read the comments yet so sorry if I am repeating.

      I was a bit concerned by this case too, but to do with how the case was being fought as the collar being a symbol of ‘belief’. I think the woman should be allowed to wear what ‘jewellery’ she likes so long as she does not risk the safety of herself or others. I don’t think it should be the fact it is a commitment/slavery collar that decides whether or not she can wear it. For me, it is presenting ‘BDSM’ as a ‘religion’ or a ‘community’ with shared values and in my experience BDSM is not that at all. I have very little in common with most BDSMers that is for sure! I don’t think we need any more ‘minority groups’ fighting for their ‘rights’.

      It reminds me of when I was at school and we had uniform rules, but they kept being broken/changed for different groups to do with their ‘beliefs’. eg Muslim girls could wear trousers under their skirts, sikh boys could wear headwear (turbans), and some even carried small knives I think (one of the 5 Ks), etc etc. It kind of made a joke of the ‘uniform’. I mean, I think all the girls should have been allowed to wear trousers and all the boys should have been allowed to wear headwear if they so wished.

      I’d like it if all her colleagues turned up for work in collars. Then what could they do? 😀

      Quiet Riot Girl

      August 20, 2011 at 10:44 pm

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