the intricacies of sm

Not too long ago, I finished reading the book Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, edited by Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. It’s basically a collection of recent academic work related to BDSM in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, law and cultural studies. Trick is, it’s all work that comes from a kink-positive perspective - or at least, not from a kink-negative one. In other words, the studies don’t assume some sort of mental imbalance or criminal activity.

Often when I write a review here, it’s a general comment on a book as a whole. But in this particular case, almost every article that was included in the book is worth a response on its own. Generally speaking they’re good pieces of work; but in many cases I have critiques or thoughts or questions about that work, or the assumptions behind it, and it varies rather widely from article to article. So I’m pretty much going to tackle each one here. Maybe two at a time, sometimes. I will attempt to keep things at least somewhat entertaining for you while I’m at it, and I’ll probably spread it over a couple of weeks at least, interspersed with other stuff… I am on a Wet Coast adventure, after all, and I do have a few sexuality-related stops on the horizon.

In Kleinplatz and Moser’s introduction, they reference a study that Moser co-authored with Weinberg and William about 20 years ago, in which they put forward the idea that SM was made up of five components generally found together. They are:

“1. The appearance of dominance and submission; the appearance of rule by one partner over the other.

“2. Role playing.

“3. Consensuality, that is, voluntary agreement to enter into the interaction.

“4. Mutual definition, i.e. a shared understanding that the activities constitute SM or some similar term.

“5. A sexual context, though the concept that SM is always sexual is not shared by all participants.”

Interesting. I have to say I very much appreciate #5 – I’ve had many many disagreements over many many years with many many people who think that SM is always about sex, when in truth I’ve experienced profoundly moving D/s and many wonderful SM scenes that are so un-sexual (and un-erotic and un-romantic and, and, and…) that it’s ludicrous to think otherwise. Not to mention that for me, on the occasions that I bottom in an SM scene, it’s rarely about sex… in fact getting sexual kind of distracts me from enjoying the pain. Like, “Can you stop petting me and just HIT ME ALREADY??” (Yes, I’m rather particular as an SM bottom, when I do bottom.)

Anyway, I think this list of five items has its problems. Thing is, anytime you try to define BDSM, you will have problems. The acronym itself is a weird little exercise in smushing together a bunch of things in pairs that don’t necessarily fit… The triple acronym, for those not in the know, works thusly: BD stands for bondage and discipline. DS stands for dominance and submission. SM stands for sadism and masochism. Fine and good, right?

Except not so much. Like for example, why do bondage and discipline go together? I know plenty of people who do bondage because they like the sense of freedom they get through restriction… or because they like the pretty rope patterns… or because they like the heightened sensation that comes from being wrapped in rope and having the blood flow to certain areas increased as a result. Psychological freedom, aesthetic pleasure and physical sensitivity are hardly about “discipline.” And I know plenty of people who do discipline-oriented play that’s got nothing at all to do with bondage, and for whom bondage would just get in the way.

And if you’re going to put all this stuff into an acronym, why not include something in there about fetishism? I mean, for tons of people, their BDSM sexual orientation includes a list of fetishistic proclivities… leather, stockings, boots, gloves, toolboxes, corduroy, whatever. And this dates back forever – one of the most glaring examples being Leopold von Sacher-Masoch himself, whose novel Venus in Furs pretty much says it all. In other words, the original masochist himself had a major fur fetish. So why is this not included in our beloved acronym?

I’m really not advocating for an acronym switch here; lord knows, the queer one just keeps getting longer, which – while I’m all for being inclusive - often only serves to further confuse a lot of people, including the ones who themselves are adding to the alphabet soup. And while I do take issue with the idea that, for example, “role play” is considered one of the quasi-essential pieces of SM when I know tons of people who don’t do role play at all, and the idea that there is an “appearance” of rule by one person over another when I know people in very real 24/7 dynamics in which the “appearance” may in fact be quite discreet but the reality is pretty darned concrete… and while I also take issue with the fact that actual pain and/or intense sensation are completely left off a list of criteria that’s supposed to describe sadism and masochism (hello?!)… I don’t think the general idea of the five-point list is wrong per se. 

My point is simply that anytime you try to group together an incredibly diverse set of human behaviours into one explanation with one set of common characteristics, there is simply no way it’ll fit. And while this is true in all sorts of cases, sexuality-related or otherwise, it’s particularly glaring when you try to put that sort of label on a bunch of horny, politically aware and articulate misfits who take great pride in being different from the norm.

In any case, I don’t mean to harp on this one small piece of the intro text. There are other interesting bits too. Particularly this one:

“We have estimated privately that approximately 10% of the general population is involved in SM, but there are no studies on which to base that figure. Based on our experiences in conference hallways (where the real exchange of knowledge and learning in academia often transpires), an even greater proportion of sexologists, sex educators, sex researchers, and sex therapists are so involved. Although sexologists are usually quite nonchalant about their personal sexual behavior, those who have confided in us have done so in hushed tones and have requested our undying pledges of discretion. We have even run across partners who each request our secrecy, but cannot bring themselves to tell one another. Simple self-disclosures are not typically sufficient to solve the couple’s problem; such are the intricacies of SM. In some instances, both partners are dominant or submissive, or maybe one yearns for the physical aspects of SM while the other for the psychological aspects, or maybe their familiarity destroys the fantasy, etc.”

What a rich paragraph. Finally, the 10% estimate shows up in print somewhere citable, if not supported by research, at least supported by researchers. And finally we have some insider knowledge to say that people who are academically interested in sex tend to explore the outer reaches of it in their personal lives too (or at least think about it a lot) – not that this comes as a surprise to me, but it’s kinda good to know where the sexykinkygeeky cruising grounds are an’ all. Heh.

What’s most interesting about that little tidbit, though, is that it shows the extent to which people – even people who work in the field of sexuality and are generally comfortable with their own sexual behaviour – are still victim to the idea of kink as taboo, as scary, as that thing you’re not supposed to do or talk about. Wow. If any population were likely to be less vulnerable to those messages, you’d think it’d be the folks that research and critique this stuff for a living… but apparently not.

Again, though, that’s not necessarily a huge surprise. Perhaps such people are the ones best placed to understand the risks of coming out as kinky, and keep their perversions tightly under wraps as a direct result. Kleinplatz and Moser go on to write:

“… as is evident in this volume, SM participants lose custody of children, security clearances, inheritances, jobs, are disowned, assaulted, and generally are victims of discrimination and persecution/prosecutions. Much of the discrimination is surprisingly overt.”

And later:

“These stories demonstrate that even among other sexual minorities, sex researchers, and sexual rights activists, SM still elicits a panoply of negative feelings. Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism are still listed as diagnoses in the DSM, despite the absence of studies proving that SM practitioners even fit the criteria for definition of a mental disorder.”

Basically, SM is still controversial. I happen to live in a happy little bubble of open-minded folks in an open-minded community in an open-minded city (and so on: province, country…) so it doesn’t often jump out at me, but when I read stuff like this – and other texts in the same book – I can’t help but remember just how far we still have to go in changing the world’s minds about this thing that we do.

So there’s my take on the intro piece. Aren’t you just thrilled to know there are 15 more articles for me to rant about? Wheee! This will be fun indeed.

6 Responses

  1. I am, actually, quite thrilled about the variety of article reviews to come. That is not a book that I’d heard of until just now, but it sounds incredibly intriguing and it may be that after reading some of your reviews, I’ll be tempted to actually pick the book up myself.

    Hi, by the way, I’m Dréa. A mutual friend pointed me this way, and I’m really glad she did. I’ll probably be around from here on out and catching up on some back posts, so don’t mind me if I drop comments on topics from ages ago, alright? Nice meeting you. :-)

  2. Hello Dréa! Nice to find you here. I’d be more than happy to see your comments on whatever inspires you, old or new. I look forward to meeting you soon I hope!

  3. I’m looking forward to the reviews as well . . . I’m pretty big on inter-disciplinary stuff and am interested in what they have to say, even if, as you mention, there are probably many things to critique. I’m sure there must be useful bits as well.

    About openly sexual academics who draw the line at being open about BDSM: I can kinda relate to that. As someone with an academic interest in sexuality, especially as it relates to culture, cultures and sub-cultures/counter-cultures (yeah, yeah . . .anthro stuff!), I am fairly open about my sexuality and make no effort to hide my queerness at work. I’ve appeared in various media over the years, speaking out as bi, poly and, more recently, a drag king for all to see. HOWEVER, something keeps me from being very open about BDSM interests/practices. I joke about it with a few closer colleagues/friends without going into detail. There are 2-3 that are practically like family that I have gone into detail with, but hesitatingly so.

    Not sure why. Maybe it’s because there is an internalised taboo that I still need to shake off. I went through that with queerness years ago . . .the embodied, visceral belief that this was just. not. something. one. talked. about.

    I got over it. Maybe I’ll get over this too.

  4. Soon indeed! I just realized you’re running that kink intro workshop at Come As You Are next month. I’ll probably see you then! Not to mention that I have my hands on a Harvest registration for October, if I can actually get it in before all the slots fill up. XD

  5. I find the 10% statistic very intriguing. Since coming out as a kinkster to most close friends and several family members, it’s surprised me how few have displayed an interest in BDSM — but there have been one or two! I’ve been wondering how many there are out there.

    Thanks again for another intelligent, informative and thought-provoking post!

  6. Dréa: I’m so glad you’ll be at Harvest. It’ll be lovely to put a face to the name!

    Charmaine: Fascinating… every time someone finds out I’m kinky, it seems they’re bursting to tell me the ways they’re kinky too. And not just lately… like, since I was 12. Maybe I’m stealing your share?! I personally think 10% is a serious underestimate, but at the same time I think I see kink as pretty fluid and wide-ranging in a way that perhaps these authors do not.

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