Alternative identities - Vampires
In conversation with DJ Williams
[Transcript is available in tab below]
This podcast will be challenging for many listeners and should generate a lot of discussion. DJ Williams addresses some of the personal and professional issues social workers and other professionals face when working with people who have alternative identities, in this case people who identify as vampires. Social workers work with many people defined by dominant discourses as deviant. When identities are so outside the norm, our own judgements can prevent people disclosing important aspects of themselves and the fear of being misunderstood can be a hindrance in our work with them. DJ’s research helps us understand how vampires view their world.
D J Williams is the Director of Research for the Center for Positive Sexuality (Los Angeles) and Associate Professor of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminology at Idaho State University. He completed an MSW degree at the University of Utah (USA) and doctoral and postdoctoral studies at the University of Alberta (Canada). DJ's scholarship intersects social work, leisure science, sexual science, and critical criminology, and he is a leading expert internationally on deviance and leisure. DJ is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Positive Sexuality, and his research has been published in several academic books and journals, including Social Work, Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, Critical Social Work, Canadian Social Work, Leisure Sciences, Leisure/Loisir, Critical Criminology, Contemporary Justice Review, and Australian Family Physician.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2015, September 12). Alternative identities - Vampires: In conversation with DJ Williams [Episode 80]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/alternative-identities-vampires/.
Williams, D. J., & Prior, E. (2015). Do we always practice what we preach? Real vampires' fears of coming out of the coffin to social workers and helping professionals. Critical Social Work, 16(1), 79-92.
Journal of Positive Sexuality
Transcription Podsocs 80: Alternative identities – Vampires. In Conversation with DJ Williams
Thank you to Abi Rider for this transcript.
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Trish: This morning on Podsocs we have DJ Williams from Idaho, welcome to Podsocs DJ.
DJ Williams: Why thank you.
Trish: We’ve got a really interesting, and perhaps challenging topic today. Would you like to start off and just tell us a bit about you?
DJ Williams: Sure, I am a social work professor and also criminology at Idaho State University. I research things that are alternative; alternative identities, lifestyles, things that may be perceived as deviant, especially from a leisure kind of perspective. So, I have a master degree in social work and practiced as a clinician for several years including in a forensics context and I also have a PhD in leisure science, so it’s kind of a nice combination. I’m also the director of research for the Centre for Positive Sexuality in Los Angeles.
Trish: I contacted you because of an article that you wrote recently that reflects some of that work.
DJ Williams: Sure
Trish: Would you like to tell us a bit about that?
DJ Williams: Yeah, so one of the topics that I have an interest in, fitting within the sort of concept of alternative leisure or deviant leisure, and especially alternative identities, is that of people who identify in some way as vampires and particularly people who identify as, quote unquote real vampires. So, self-identified vampires, when somebody says, you know, I’m a vampire or I identify as a vampire that really doesn’t tell me very much. I need to know more in terms of what they mean by that. So broadly, vampires can be classified as lifestyle vampires, or what they call real vampires and lifestyle vampires identify in some way with the vampire persona so they may wear dark clothing, the may sleep in coffins some of them, they may have certain spiritual beliefs around different images, sort of traits of vampires, metaphysical beliefs, those kinds of things. Whereas real vampires, on the other hand believe that they have a chronic deficit in what they call subtle human energy, so it’s about energy deficits, and about the need or their perceived need at least to regularly take in energy. And so, it’s the real vampires that I am more interested in, and I’ve worked with this community for several years now and they’re very underground, they don’t want to be perceived as being dangerous, or delusional or criminal of anything like that. So, they prefer to keep those identities very private. But nevertheless, you know they believe that they have to take in energy from time to time and they call themselves real vampires as a way of taking in energy.
Trish: I imagine there’s a very strong temptation from practitioners really across the disciplines to medicalise and label those issues and I wonder if that’s got anything to do with the underground nature.
DJ Williams: Absolutely. There’s no question about that and when we hear in the media and news reports that you know, somebody has identified as a vampire it’s usually in a psychotic sort of a context, or perhaps a criminal context where somebody has committed a horrible crime, may be, drunk blood, those kinds of things, so they don’t want to be thought of a being you know psychotic or dangerous. That’s why they’ve been underground for a long, long time. The vampire community, I think, increasingly has started to realise that what would actually be very helpful eventually if clinicians did understand them and did understand their identities, that could be potentially very helpful. It took me a long time to gain access and trust to work with this community. I’ve worked with quite a lot with the people who consensually participate in sadomasochism, and the processes is very similar in terms of being misunderstood, having those fears of being open to clinicians and to people in general.
Trish: When we think about history, a lot of groups have been labelled -
DJ Williams: Sure.
Trish: - and even a psychiatric label, black men during in the sixties, seventies… gay people, people with disabilities
DJ Williams: Absolutely.
Trish: So, is it along those same lines?
DJ Williams: Yeah, it’s along those lines. It’s the very same social processes in terms of being understood in certain limited ways and misunderstood I would say. We actually, based on our research in consensual sadomasochism and BDSM, there are a number of studies that actually show that these same processes operate within that population too. Clinicians do not understand that, those sort of phenomena very well. There’s research that shows that BDSM participants have faced severe discrimination and marginalisation by clinicians so some of that literature was fundamental in use developing this particular study.
Trish: And it really challenges the core principles of social work, doesn’t it? About having the non-judgemental approaches and being open to our clients’ perspectives.
DJ Williams: Absolutely. It presents big challenges to our ethical principles.
Trish: Have you talked with other social workers about it?
DJ Williams: You know, I have talked to several in various places and my experience is that clinicians in social work and medical doctors, psychologists - a number of them are curious but not, a number of them are not convinced. So, and again I realise that this is a brand new topic, it’s very very different, the word vampire tends to throw a lot of people so I faced a lot of scepticism and in some ways occasionally, even some derision based on my interest in this topic and researching this topic.
Trish: That it would be seen as sensational perhaps…
DJ Williams: Right, sensational and you know, I must be, something must be up with me to research this, you especially to, based on our findings focus on power for these people. So, there’s a lot of scepticism.
Trish: And in reality, I mean, some of our clients could identify this way and just not tell us.
DJ Williams: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things were finding researchers, a few researchers who are studying this topic is there are far more people who identify as this way than we realise. So, in a number of major cities in multiple countries, including Australia, have people who identify this way. And a lot of times people think of, well these people must be teenagers. They must be twilight fans or vampire enthusiasts in some way and that’s not really, that’s not really who these people are. They are a very wide and diverse demographic profile. They come from a wide and diverse backgrounds, ages, occupations, religious beliefs. So, they’re typically not what people think in terms of a linear demographic.
Trish: So how do they understand their lives DJ?
DJ Williams: Well, real vampires believe that they don’t choose their vampirism. This is a chronic condition. It’s more akin to something like sexual orientation. It’s not something that you choose. They don’t say, “I wanna be a vampire and that’s how it is”, so they typically recognise that they don’t quite fit in and they’ve recognised this for a long time and maybe they’ve felt a little bit different at some level, they recognise that they feel sluggish at of times, kind of tired, just not really, fully healthy and eventually vampires connect, now usually through the internet or they come across this sort of different way of understanding themselves and they have a language and terminology and a community that seems to resonate with how they felt. And that’s usually how people come to understand themselves this way.
Trish: So, for real vampires its more of a physical reality for them rather than a say a spiritual.
DJ Williams: Right, and a number of vampires, they are hopeful that medical science eventually might be able to explain this condition and I get asked that frequently in my work. Do I you know believe this is a medical condition, or you know does it have a physical or genetic sort of basis and I don’t know the answer to that. And as a social scientist I am far less interested in that, I’m much more interested in how people come to identify and interpret themselves and especially how people generally interpret other people. This tells us a lot about mainstream as well as a unique identity.
Trish: DJ, do we know how long vampires have been around? Is it a new, modern phenomenon? Or do we know how long people have felt this way? Does it go back throughout history?
DJ Williams: You know, that’s a really difficult question. You know, thinking is that there probably people who have felt this way but really didn’t have a way to describe it, you know. A sort of language and terms and those sorts of things. The community today really started to take off in the seventies and eighties with specific magazines and people writing things that readers would sort of recognise and identify with and of course with the internet it’s so much easier for people to connect with each other, so the internet has had a huge impact obviously on people coming in contact with other people who feel similarly. So, it’s how far previous to that, when this sort of started is a difficult question.
Trish: We may not ever know that.
DJ Williams: Right, we may never know. And, again, because it’s been so underground and so private… Who knows.
Trish: It sounds to me at bit like trans people and you know those kinds of people that have a problem with a limb and are looking for amputation that it’s a real physical need that they identify with early.
DJ Williams: Yes, yeah I think that the process is probably very similar.
Trish: Does it cause problems in other areas of their lives?
DJ Williams: Well, a number of vampires will say one of the most difficult things is to get donors, people who will let them take this energy and some vampires actually take that energy through tasting or drinking very tiny amounts of blood. So, the coming out process to potential donors seems to be a significant issue for vampires.
Trish: So, it is human blood that they look for.
DJ Williams: That’s correct and at the same time I think in terms of, if this is a really salient identity and this is how people understand themselves and they have needs based upon this sort of issue then that would certainly impact other areas of their lives as well and I think that’s where clinicians could be really helpful. You know, with more understanding. So, if you’re a vampire and you need human blood from time to time to be healthy, you know, you may have some different issues but you’re probably not going to bring that up to your clinician.
Trish: It makes me think of relationships too,
DJ Williams: Sure.
Trish: In that it’s a difficult thing to explain to anyone you love.
DJ Williams: Absolutely, and vampires are very sensitive about that. Really forming relationships is very difficult for many vampires.
Trish: What other things do they tell you DJ?
DJ Williams: Well, you know again this is something that they believe they are born with. It’s not chosen, they don’t want to lumped in with, in terms of being thought of as being psychotic, or delusional or dangerous. And that’s one of the big findings of our study, we asked people in our sample, and we particularly chose a small sample that we already had a very good rapport with and who had identified as a real vampire for a number of years. So, but we wanted to try and understand have they disclosed these identities to professionals and we defined that as social work, psychology, counselling, medical doctors and if so, how did that disclosure go. And if not why wouldn’t they. So, we wanted to get open-ended responses, very, very broadly around this. And not really surprisingly, the answer was “hell no, we would never tell a clinician because we don’t want to be labelled as delusional or immature or evil, or wicked, satanic, those kinds of things” and they fear the repercussions of that. They don’t have, they talk about not having the time or the energy, not wanting to be prescribed mental health treatment because of that interpretation. Being afraid that the Government and the State would take their children away because they would be perceived as being unfit parents, those kinds of things.
Trish: I imagine that would be a huge issue.
DJ Williams: Absolutely, and again because in the media accounts when somebody is identified as being a vampire it is very strongly attached to horrific criminal cases and psychosis and all those kinds of things and they don’t want to be understood that way. So, it makes a lot of sense, and I think one of the things as far as clinicians that we can improve upon is to maybe be a little bit more sensitive and challenge some of those normalising discourses. So our respondents talked all about these different fears, these very real fears to them and then we wanted to understand, OK what’s the source of this fear and so we did a discourse analysis to look at that and the discourses that emerged were around psychiatry and around religion, particularly around Judaeo-Christian religion and forensics, and sort of legal discourses. And so, that really kind of clues us in, in-terms of how powerful some of these discourses are and how powerfully they shape our interpretations of people who might be a little bit different or alternative.
Trish: Because it’s very easy for social workers to say to separate our own perspectives when our clients’ perspectives are within the expected range I suppose, but I imagine this will be very challenging for some social workers, particularly perhaps those with strong religious beliefs.
DJ Williams: Absolutely.
Trish: Or other ideas that would be really challenged by this.
DJ Williams: Absolutely, and I think when we talk about diversity, embracing diversity, being sensitive to clients, I think one of the very first things is that social workers and clinicians need to do is to identify their own social positioning. So, what’s my religious views and you know, I’m a white middle-class male, I’m American and how do these kinds of positionings shape my interpretation of my clients and of how they might get in the way. So, I think we each need to sort of start with ourselves and recognise how we’re positioned and how we may misinterpret based on that positioning.
Trish: Because I imagine too that from what you’re saying that for a person to even get to the point of disclosing this to a social worker there would have to be a very long-term trusting relationship and then if that disclosure was not met in the right way than that could really be harmful in a therapeutic relationship.
DJ Williams: Absolutely, and you know we see this with other kinds of issues including a number that you had mentioned in terms of sexual orientation and transgender identities and people like that, where you know, it’s a real risk to come out of the closet. It’s a real risk to open up and with a number of clinicians that then becomes the primary target of therapy which is not correct, it’s not accurate. That shouldn’t happen.
Trish: Because they don’t see it as a problem, so…
DJ Williams: Right, so if the identity is perceived as to be the problem for these different normalising discourses then treatment is going to be very misguided, obviously, and the real issues are not going to be targeted. And that can be very damaging to clients, absolutely. And we see that, like I said, we see that in our research with sadomasochism as well, we want to refer clients who engage in consensual sadomasochism to clinicians who are well educated and well trained on that topic as opposed to people who are not, right. Who will be judgemental and target that as the source of the problem.
You know, I think too in terms of practices, I know a number of clinicians, I know a number of lay-people kind of focus on the term “vampire” and the word vampire is a metaphor, you know it’s a description of the process of needing energy, taking energy and especially you know, through blood for a number of these people. And that is perceived as being very, very different, but another thing I think that we need to be aware of is that people have a number of possible motivations and explanations for doing various things, various behaviours and I think sometimes we get caught up in thinking that we have the right explanation for a certain behaviour whereas behaviour practices may be engaged for all sorts of reasons. And I think we need to remember that too. Actually, I witnessed a very, very powerful feeding and it was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever seen. And so, for a number of vampires, this is a very private, this is a very spiritual kind of transaction between consenting adults. And there’s a certain beauty to that, I think. There’ certainly a very strong sense of intimacy engaged with that, so…
Trish: Was there ritual around that DJ or?
DJ Williams: You know, I don’t know that it was a particular ritual. it was the way that this particular couple preferred to feed, but vampires I think have their own preferred ways of doing things with their donors but again the bottom line is needing that extra energy and that process apparently of taking that energy is a very intimate process and it’s thought to be beneficial for both the vampire and the donor. This is a symbiotic relationship, ideally.
Trish: DJ, given the dominant discourses around how we should be, do vampires experience any guilt because of that? Or do any go through a period of trying to change that?
DJ Williams: You know that’s a really good question. I don’t have a direct answer, however, there are a lot of vampires who seem to wish that they were not vampires. They think that life would be a little easier if they didn’t have this need for extra energy and that makes sense to me. So, I think a number of vampires are sort of indifferent about it, you know, this is who I am, this is what I need, this is how it is and, as I mentioned a number of vampires seem to feel like life would be easier if they didn’t have this issue.
Trish: Which is probably a reality in the world today.
DJ Williams: It is, absolutely. It is a reality in their world.
Trish: How would they like the world to be? Would they like to be open?
DJ Williams: Yes, yeah, I think the vampire community would like outsiders and especially clinicians of various sorts to understand them, and to understand their needs and to be able to help them in meaningful ways and there are a number of ways that clinicians could help them. Obviously, you know there’s a lot of marginalisation and stereotyping and those kinds of things and social workers especially can be very helpful in confronting some of those things and advocating. That’s a lot of what we do. You know, vampires need donors and they have special needs based on those identities and social workers may be helpful in navigating some of those kinds of issues. And, of course, vampires have real issues that the rest of us have, sometimes their relationships end and sometimes they have career difficulties and the loss of a loved one and adjustment issues and those kinds of things. So, I think there are a number of ways that both generally and specifically that helping professionals can really be valuable.
Trish: We’ve only got a few minutes left, DJ. Final words for practitioners, or other important things that we might now have not covered in this half hour?
DJ Williams: Sure, I think there are a couple of things that a practitioner should remember and one is that people, and especially now in the age of technology because I think we are going to see a proliferation of new identities. Technology in a lot of ways complicates things, it complicates our world, as well as simplifying it in other ways. So, I think remembering that people sometimes use language and use words in their own ways for their own purposes, and I think we know that but we need to kind of remind ourselves of that. I think again being aware of the different dominant normalising discourses, and being a little bit sceptical at times, being inquisitive and curious, I’m not comfortable throwing away psychiatry or anything like that but at the same time we have a number of different disciplines and methodologies and epistemologies from ways of understanding and to be more open to the range of those things can be very, very helpful and useful in understanding people. Certainly, being aware of our own social positioning and where we might judge and misinterpret is a very important thing, and then kind of back to ethics. You know, self-determination is a very important ethical principle and people have the right to live their lives and do what they do as long as their behaviour is not blatantly harmful and its consensual.
Trish: And it really comes back to the old social work adage “start where the person is at” because they are not identifying this as a problem, really should we be identifying it as a problem?
DJ Williams: Sure, absolutely. And again, even though this identity may make some clinicians somewhat uncomfortable, and some clinicians may see it as problematic, at the same time I think it’s important for people to see some of the potential benefits. Again, this is a very intimate kind of an act and people are very, very close and there needs to be trust and communication and with some of these practices. And so, there are some benefits and some good things to some of these different identities as well. Otherwise people wouldn’t engage in them and wouldn’t identify that way. So, kind of remember the strengths that people have, is also very, very important.
Trish: Thankyou DJ, that’s been fascinating and I think it obviously applies to a broader range of groups of people than vampires so any minority.
Trish: Wonderful, thank you so much for being on Podsocs
DJ: Thank you, I appreciate it.