What is a Secret?

contributed by The Happy Misanthrope

“All men have secrets,” said Laura Palmer, the mysterious high school sex worker of Twin Peaks, and I suppose I am one of them. Those of us with secret lives are actually living double, there is our public face and there is our second, hidden face, known only to a few. We live in fear of our private secrets being revealed to the public, where we’d be the target of scorn, shame, and shunning. Yet, at the same time, we yearn for a world where we don’t need to keep secrets, where we can be open with our perversions without fear of loss of prestige, power or position.

But, I suppose, the question should be, “What is a secret?” Looking at the word in a dictionary will give multiple definitions, the best of which is “kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated or privileged.” Obviously, there are the secrets of businesses, some shameful, some essential, and some meaningless.  I’d be surprised if there is someone who has worked in Silicon Valley who has not seen a non-disclosure agreement.  There are secrets within families, perhaps the shame of a relative with issues of addiction, or one who has broken the law.  And of course there are the secrets lovers keep.

Not in the definition, but essential to the meaning of a secret is the need for a secret to be shared by at least one other person. While it is true that if I am the only one who knows a certain fact, the value of the secret is in the initiation and privilege of sharing it with someone; the fewer people with whom the secret is shared, the more secret the secret is. We have been given the mutual privilege of airing and sharing our secrets here by our gracious hostess, Mistress Colette.

Here, we have a different type of secret — our secrets are dangerous to share.  Most people would not understand why we do what we do, and many would not accept what we do.  What is disconcerting is the realization that we’ve probably shared more than we’d realize, and with the very people who could do significant harm to us. We should all be aware, living in the United States, of how much we have that is secret, and how much is not. The European Courts recently invalidated safe harbor agreements for American companies storing data for European citizens on American hosted servers because of existing relationships between American technology companies and the US government’s security apparatus. As an investor and early employee in a cloud computing company based in the United States, this extreme overreach by the US government frightens me — and puts my investment at risk.

So, we should understand what is really secret here, and what isn’t.  Pervette is hosted in the United States, and the email is hosted by an American company.  We all have to assume that any communication we have here is shared not only with the good folks here, but with the data search engines at Fort Meade.

For this reason, I feel more comfortable writing about my sexual experiences.  While I do not use my name, I know it is already logged in some huge database — I may not have initiated these people to my secrets, but they’ve already privileged themselves to my life; or, perhaps I should say, they’ve unprivileged me to my right to privacy.  The government of the United States has devalued my secrets — which, perversely, makes it easier for me to share them. At the same time, I feel liberated.  I’ve written a defense of men who visit sex workers in Salon.com under the pen name of Tony Calvin, based on my personal experiences. I believe the clients of sex workers lack the agency some sex workers have bravely seized. We’re both on the same side of the law, even if we’re on opposite sides of the transaction. The commentary on my self-expose was revealing, ranging from supportive comments to accusations of rape – after all, the thought goes, no sex worker is a sex worker by choice, so they are a sex worker only through coercion. The latter accusations show why anonymity is still required when talking about our secrets.

I’ve also shared my experiences with a licensed therapist who has been open-minded and respects the experience I have and recognizes the value in my life that Colette and others provide. That was a risky proposition; some therapists might have taken the view that I am breaking the law, and acted accordingly. Granted, I’d have just changed therapists, but who is to say that a therapist might not have called it self-destructive behavior, and notified the police?  Therapists are allowed to break confidence if they believe a patient is a danger to him (or her) self or others — and if they feel the act of visiting a dominatrix risks personal harm, they may feel compelled to act.

Worse, I recently faced a lawsuit in Portland, Oregon, where the other party was also privileged to know these secrets of mine. I also had similar privilege to the other party’s similar secrets. I saw there was a risk that this party might introduce evidence to attack my credibility — or I might need to introduce evidence that could reveal secrets. It was a walking on the edge of a razor, and it was my good fortune that I did not have either set of secrets exposed.  The sense of relief as I celebrated both winning the lawsuit and preserving our secrets was palpable.

Taking stock of my secrets, I now pay closer attention to where they go, and who knows what. I recognize that there is more about me out in the world than I’d ever want (and I dream of the United States adopting privacy laws even half as strong as those in Europe) and I do my best to respect the secrets of those around me.