sadomasochism, spirituality and ethics

Last week, I gave a lecture on the ethics of sadomasochism for Daniel Cere’s sexual ethics class at McGill. I find it endlessly amusing that I was asked to speak in a class within the Religious Studies Department. I’m certainly a spiritual person, and I’ve definitely got a broad range of general knowledge about the world’s religions, but by no means am I an expert in religion or spirituality. But I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to BDSM, and I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about ethics, so I guess the fit works from that angle. In any case, we agreed ahead of time that I’d touch on three topics: religious motifs in BDSM, the practical ethics of the BDSM community, and the idea of erotic and spiritual ecstasy. It’s very much an overview, but I thought it might be fun to post my notes here for your enjoyment.

I started out with a general definition of BDSM/kink/leather. I realize that practitioners often get extremely picky about the semantics of all this, but for the outside observer, the particulars are often confounded into a single morass of sexual otherness, and even for those who play in the community the distinctions aren’t always crystal clear. So for our purposes, I defined the whole shebang as being a practice of relationship (usually sexual, sometimes not; ranging from long-term to casual and fleeting) or fantasy that involves:

  • the voluntary exchange of power and/or
  • the experience of giving or receiving intense sensation and/or
  • the incorporation of fetishized objects (i.e. eroticized objects, materials or sensory experiences that fall outside the range of those considered “traditionally” erotic).

I also made the distinction between community and practice. I can speak from the point of view of a participant in a community of people whose sexual and intimate lives often feature these experiences and who consider them to be an important part of their identity to varying degrees. We have a body of literature, a plethora of discussion boards and websites, community events and terminology and codes of conduct and so forth. But I don’t for a second believe that we’re the only ones who enjoy the experiences that are at the root of this community. There are tons of people out there who enjoy sexual experiences of this kind without ever identifying as part of the BDSM/leather/kink community, or seeking out its literature or websites, or employing its conventions or approaches or language. I think this is particularly important to mention when speaking with an audience of presumed-vanilla individuals because in truth I’d bet that a sizeable percentage of them has flirted with or engaged in practices that I might consider to “count” as BDSM/leather/kink, whether or not they have ever worn a corset, read Califia’s erotica or learned what “SSC” stands for.

So, with that as a starting point…

Religious motifs in BDSM

Role play
While religious themes, costumes and rituals do, for some people, make up part of the way they approach SM play, that’s really more about the taboos that SM tends to eroticize for the purposes of play—of which there are many, including age, gender and tons more—than it is about religion per se. Foucault, with his idea of the confessional, makes the erotic link nearly explicit; the perverse pleasure in guilt, confession, punishment and redemption is definitely a cycle that many have turned into erotic play.

I can’t help but remember a hilarious scene I saw at a play party in which one woman played the part of a Mother Superior, a second played the part of a novice nun, and a third played the part of a confessing schoolgirl. The funniest part for me, as an observer, was knowing that the pious Catholic schoolgirl in question was actually an out-and-proud Jewish leatherdyke well over age 30. While I don’t pretend to know about the personal histories of everyone involved, for me it served to show how a bunch of happily kinky dykes, who don’t appear to be suffering from any great shame about their sexual orientations and practices, could still employ the classic themes of religious role-play to have a grand ol’ time even if those themes had little or nothing to do with their own lives or “real-life” experiences of religious shame, guilt and confession. Of course there may be tons of people out there whose entire sexuality revolves around the religious motif and for whom it’s not about role-play at all, but I am hardly the right person to be saying anything about them as I’ve never (to my knowledge) met one.

Flagellation and asceticism
Niklaus Largier wrote an enormous book about the history of flagellation entitled In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. It’s a bit of a slog to get through, clocking in at over 450 pages of dry, academic prose, but the illustrations are great if you’re into that sort of thing. He catalogues the ways in which the concept of religious ecstasy brought on by flagellation eventually, over the centuries, translated into the erotic use of flagellation both in practice and in pornography. In essence we are talking about different forms of ecstasy in which the body is stimulated as a means to achieve an altered state—in religious context it’s a state of spiritual ecstasy, in kinky contexts it’s a state of erotic ecstasy. For some people those things are not entirely separable. Certainly Largier’s work gives a detailed analysis of the ways in which this practice, and imagery related to it, existed for several hundred years before they were co-opted by pornographers and the links, whether humorous, political or practical, made evident between the two purposes for that sort of stimulation. Which leads to…

Religious references in kinky erotica
The popularity of using religious references for erotic and kinky purposes is evident in a wealth of erotic fiction work including writing, film and many other types of cultural production. Anne Rice’s novels are a good example, but there are ton of others—Madonna’s songs “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” for starters, and these are just some of the most extremely mainstream examples. These more recent examples follow faithfully on the heels of hundreds of years’ worth of religion-themed erotic works dating back as far as the 16th century and gaining widespread currency in the Victorian era, and they are worth bringing up if only to indicate the breadth of the effect that religion has on contemporary eroticism. These cultural and artistic works provide their consumers with the experience of breaking taboo and eroticizing the forbidden, whether or not that translates into the re-enactment of religious themes in actual sexual practice; and occasionally these images and stories are politically provocative or humorous. Certainly two of my favourite examples of religious imagery co-opted for erotic purposes are Divine Interventions, a company that produces high-quality silicone dildos and butt plugs shaped like Mary and the Baby Jesus, among other things, and Leatherbeaten’s “La Seria Penitentia,” a line of floggers modeled after actual Christian flagellation instruments, unfortunately discontinued but no less brilliant in concept.

Political activism
The intersection of religion and sexuality has long been a site of political work. Of greatest interest for our purposes are the places where sexual practitioners have rebelled against religious proscription, sometimes using religious imagery as a form of protest. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a group of gay leathermen who do outrageous nun-themed drag and raise funds for charity in San Francisco. They aren’t anti-religious crusaders, but they have certainly co-opted both the image of the nun and the strategy of drag itself—as beefy butch leathermen, they are also implicitly using drag to poke at the overwhelming focus on masculinity in the gay leather scene—to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS charities. In some ways this fits marvelously, and ironically, well with the traditional idea of nuns caring for the sick; in others ways it’s turning the imagery back on itself in recognition of the Church’s staunch repression of AIDS activism, such as the Pope’s public insistence that condoms don’t work to prevent HIV infection even when reams of scientific data prove that they do.

In another example, Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco’s enormous kinky street festival, has in recent years been viciously targeted by the Religious Right, which is pressuring the fair’s major sponsors to pull out of their contracts. In reaction, the fair organizers attacked back on the occasion of their 25th anniversary. The two best examples of this are their Last Supper poster, which features a table covered in sex toys and kinky implements and populated by leatherfolk in various states of undress and kinky garb; and the Fair’s flier ads which directly quote the religious-right zealots who decry the festival—“depraved and immoral!” and so forth—but positioning them so that readers will understand those very quotes to be laudatory. It’s quite a brilliant strategy. In a way it echoes the heavily political works of the Marquis de Sade, after whom “sadism” is named, who never separated the depravity of his kinks from the repressive social context in which he operated. For him, dirty sex was an explicit fuck-you to the Church, the State and other forms of institutionalized bodily and sexual repression.

The practical ethics of the BDSM community

Despite all these religious references, it’s quite rare that organized religion directly informs the ethics of SM play or relationships per se. As a community we seem to prefer to mess with religious symbolism than to integrate it. The ethics of the SM community have developed largely independently of any religious forces, except perhaps in the sense that it has developed in opposition to those forces—a concerted subcultural refusal to comply with a dominant norm. Rather, SM community ethics have mainly been created in a secular context, with nods to libertarianism, sex-positive feminism and so forth.

Some very interesting stats by Trevor Jacques (check out page 12 of this presentation) show that the vast majority of people in the SM scene who grew up in Christian families of one variety or another now consider themselves to be Pagan, Buddhist or atheist, although those who grew up Jewish tend not to budge from that, kink notwithstanding. I’d love to get a cause-and-effect analysis of this particular set of stats, but in the meantime I’m simply interested in pointing it out.

In any case, completely independently of religious persuasion, the questions of safety, ethics and consent are hot topics in BDSM circles pretty much everywhere. The acronym SSC, standing for “Safe, Sane and Consensual,” was proposed at a Leather Leadership Conference in the mid-90s and has been widely adopted since then; for all that its merits are debated, it’s certainly considered a common starting point for discussion if nothing else. People often argue that “safe” is a relative term, and inaccurate in that nothing is ever completely safe, much as sex-positive communities have taken to talking about “safer sex” rather than “safe sex” for similar reasons.

It’s also argued that “sanity” is a troubling term to choose given that the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual still lists both sadism and masochism as mental illnesses. Their definitions have been amended to specify that they must be present for at least six months and cause “significant distress,” so for all we happy non-distressed sadists and masochists that’s just dandy. But the problem persists in that the “distress” in question is likely produced, for the most part, by social and cultural forces that decry sadistic and masochistic sexual practices as being sick and immoral, no doubt supported by the existence of a psychological profession that continues to keep them on the books as exactly that. A bit circular, you might say.

There’s also the ongoing question about how exactly one determines the presence or absence of consent; the law, in Canada at least, argues that it is not legal to consent to assault, so no matter what pretty ideas we come up with, our asses can and sometimes do still get tossed in jail (while boxing clubs and hockey arenas continue to operate without legal intervention, of course). BDSMers practically (and in some cases actually) fetishize the process of negotiation, but without signed contracts the accuracy of two different people’s perceptions of what has been agreed upon can become difficult to assess, not to mention what may happen in the context of a long-term relationship where certain things may be assumed as time goes on, or in the context of ongoing power exchange. In any case, no matter how hard we try, there are no universally evident and foolproof methods of determining consent among kinksters, and even if we came up with one it wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.

RACK, standing for “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink,” is another acronym that’s grown more popular in recent years to get around the issues with SSC. But it too is not without its problems. Some people argue that you can only really be “risk-aware” if you are already an experienced player, which means that novices are shit outta luck. In addition, RACK doesn’t get around the question of consent any better than SSC does… and let’s not even try to figure out what actually counts as “kink” for the purposes of this discussion.

Nevertheless, the care that is generally taken within the BDSM community to determine consent and to approach the communication process with clarity and thoroughness are rather omnipresent. Certainly anyone who spends much time in the community will begin to see that these questions are of prime importance to the people there, and are discussed frequently and insisted upon vigorously. I’ve written about my own criteria for determining consent here, and in various other bits and pieces over the past few years, should you be curious. I’ve also written and taught quite a bit about the distinctions between BDSM and abuse—I’ll be re-posting some of my older writings on the topic in the near future.

Erotic and spiritual ecstasy

Spirituality in BDSM is a common theme for discussion in some segments of the kink community, and it has been for decades. Not so much religious theme play, but rather, the sense that SM is a path to spiritual communion, or is a spiritual path in itself. I often feel like I’m woefully inarticulate when it comes to discussing matters of spirituality, not because I haven’t read or thought about them, but because my own spirituality is so distinctly private and personal and so completely unrelated to any specific religious tradition with associated terminology, concepts and common understandings. So I’m an odd choice in terms of trying to articulate these things.

What I can do is point to a number of examples of how spirituality gets discussed in the BDSM world. For starters, there’s a remarkable overlap between the Neo-Pagan community and the kink community, and the Pagans are generally very kink-friendly even if kink isn’t their thing in particular. The Unitarians can be leather-friendly, though it depends on what specific group you’re talking about—there’s definitely some conflict between the more progressive and conservative forces within that tradition. Kinksters in many places have appropriated and reconfigured a range of tribal and shamanic spiritual practices such as sun dance ritual, piercing, tattooing and more; they’re typified by the Urban Primitive movement fathered by Fakir Musafar in San Francisco, who, by day, is actually an ad executive (I find this highly amusing). I do take some issue, personally, with the more evident examples of direct cultural appropriation in this realm, but I don’t think there’s any shame in learning from the rich history or spiritual practices created by people elsewhere in the world, in a more general sense, and applying that learning to how we understand ourselves today. North American cultural and religious traditions tend to separate body and spirit, treating the former as profane and the latter as sacred, and it does human beings good, in my opinion, to integrate those two aspects of our existence.

This same philosophy applies to Eastern-based understandings of energy work, chakras and ecstasy as played out in Tantric practices and other types of body work. Traditional Tantric culture is actually quite hostile to BDSM—it never fails to both offend me and crack me up when I read the following paragraph from the well-known Tantra manual Jewel In the Lotus: The Tantric Path to Higher Consciousness by Sunyata Saraswati and Bodhi Avinasha:

“It is unfortunately true that power can corrupt, and the powerful principles of Tantra have, in the wrong hands, been used in company with witchcraft, superstition, orgies, drinking blood, sado-masochism, black magic, human sacrifice and contact with evil spirits through decomposing bodies in cemeteries.”

Umm… wow. I am much more interested in the ideas about Tantra that are put forth in, say, Urban Tantra: Sex for the 21st Century by Barbara Carellas, or more generally in Radical Ecstasy by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton. These are recent books, but Purusha the Divine Androgyne wrote a manifesto on the spiritual dimensions of anal fisting titled The Divine Androgyne According to Purusha: Adventures in Cosmic Erotic Ecstasy and Androgyne Bodyconsciousness, in 1981, and ran a commune for people who wanted to engage in the practice, so the concept of energy work and spirituality are hardly new in the realm of radical sexuality.

Another interesting example is the way that Raven Kaldera and his boy Josh Tenpenny discuss the idea of servitude and 24/7 dominant/submissive or master/slave relationships as expressions of spiritual devotion along a monastic path. While I haven’t read it myself, I have it on good authority that Josh Tenpenny wrote a piece about BDSM and monasticism in Kaldera’s BDSM and spirituality anthology Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM and the Ordeal Path. They’re regular speakers at numerous BDSM conferences in various parts of the States; should ever you have the opportunity to hear them I highly recommend you take it! In the meantime, you can get a quick intro in this article and this interview, both by Sensuous Sadie.

A final suggestion: the website features numerous discussion groups about spirituality in BDSM, among them the 300-member group called Sacred Exchange, facilitated by a member of my leather family.


In short, BDSM bridges body and spirit with the help of intense physical and psychological stimulation in a way that often creates strong ties to spirituality among many who practice it. But regardless of whether or not individuals find explicitly spiritual meaning in their kink, the community encourages a very considered and ethical approach to BDSM play. The community’s ethics are complex and multi-layered and generally sex-positive, and so enter into conflict with religious beliefs that are less so, but in terms of values they are not as far divorced as one might expect from some spiritual traditions, and the community’s ethics are in some ways far more thoughtfully developed and articulately communicated than those of traditional sexual practice.

6 thoughts on “sadomasochism, spirituality and ethics

  1. Funny how you should post this now. Ever since Unholy Harvest, I’ve been writing (in my mind) about how spiritual BDSM is for me. I still need to process all the sensations from that weekend to fully articulate it all but, for now, I just think it’s interesting that this topic should pop up on your blog right now when it’s on my mind almost 24/7. I also think it’s way cool that you were invited to give that talk at McGill. The prof must be pretty open minded.

  2. Writing in your mind? What a great concept. And yeah, the spiritual aspects of BDSM (particularly, for me, with regard to ongoing D/s or M/s relationships) are taking up a lot of space in my mind too these days. Could make for an interesting discussion topic on the Harvest list if you were up for posting… certainly I’d be intrigued to read your thoughts once the processing has happened!

    As for the prof – yeah, I was pretty impressed. All the more interesting in that he later that day confessed to me (and yes, it did very much have the flavour of confession) about his involvement with a Christian group for which he wrote a position paper suggesting that the definition of marriage not be altered to include queer couples, but rather that a second definition be added. I’m not really clear on what he was getting at, but someone told me later that week that he’s practically been run out of town by other queer activists. Clearly he knows it and knows why, and felt compelled to tell me for some reason. But regardless of his position on same-sex marriage, he was certainly excited about what I had to say on the topic of BDSM ethics, and very open to it, and he was bringing in a speaker about polyamory the following class – so we’re hardly dealing with a close-minded bigot here. People are so complex!

  3. Hmmm . . .well, I know that there are people who aren’t against same-sex unions but who think that it shouldn’t be lumped under “marriage” because that term smacks of an institution that is so narrowly defined according to Western (i.e. Christian) norms that it doesn’t leave the openness that is needed for these unions. Yes others believe in reappropriating the term and shaping it to their needs and realities. I’d be interested to know more about his particular argument.

    After these two hell weeks at work/uni are over, I will probably blog about BDSM and spirituality.

  4. Omigoodness! Thank you so much! I’d heard they were no longer making the series, and then I couldn’t find it on their website, so I figured it was true. But I’m thrilled to know they’re still around. Fun fun! 🙂 And thanks so much for the kind words, while we’re at it.

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