A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I began a project to review every essay contained in a most intriguing book entitled Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, a collection of academic articles about SM edited by Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. I posted reviews of the first five articles (links here for the curious: the intricacies of SM, arbitrary associations vs coherent conclusions: a study with a split personality, the hidden dangers of spanking, an exploration of 24/7: please, authors, may i have some more?, and pop culture kink: questions and critiques) but life got distracting, weeks turned into months, and it’s now been quite a long time indeed since I engaged with my project.
Luckily, I’ve now got a whole new opportunity to do so, since the book club I run, the Leather Bindings Society, has chosen to read the book and discuss it over two of our next four meetings. Yum. What better time to return to it and continue in my endeavour to savour and critique everything in it? Sheer succulent joy, I tell you!
(It bears mentioning that the book’s publisher, Harrington Park Press, is an imprint of Haworth Press, which has gone out of business. As a result, if you want to get a copy of the book, you need to either pay the takeover publisher an outrageous amount of money since it’s been reclassified as a textbook, or find the original softcover secondhand. Because major chain stores are evil, I recommend ABEbooks for secondhand stuff, but you can also get it through Amazon or Chapters Indigo.)
The next essay on the list is entitled “Understanding Sadomasochism: An Empirical Examination of Four Perspectives,” by Patricia A. Cross and Kim Matheson, both of Carleton University in Ottawa.
In general, I’m actually pretty darned impressed with their work. They conducted three studies to assess current understandings of sadomasochism. I’ll quote their abstract since it lays out their approach quite clearly:
“In Study 1 questionnaires testing four academic views of SM were administered to individuals who self-defined as involved in SM. The psychoanalytic, psychopathology/medical model, radical feminist and escape-from-self perspectives were not supported. Study 2 examined ‘virtual’ sadomasochism as a source of information about sadomasochists in the real life world. Cluster analyses indicated that real-life and virtual sadomasochists share unique sexual proclivities. Study 3 examined an alternative view that identifies power as the commodity of importance in SM play. Content analysis of online SM encounters indicated that both ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ role-players used several specific techniques to create a power differential. These studies suggest that, contrary to many academic theories, power, and not the giving and receiving of pain, is at the core of SM.”
I’ll break down my review by the same three studies they conducted because my critiques are particular to each.
The first one’s easy. Their analysis is bang-on – no big surprise. They used a number of recognized personality testing tools for determining people’s emotional and psychological conditions, personal characteristics and political stances on various points, and compared their results to the prevailing theories about SM. Psychoanalysis would have it that people engage in SM because of shame and guilt, psychiatry and medicine think kinksters are sick in the head, radical feminists think SM is necessarily misogynistic and patriarchal, and social psychologists think we’re either trying to escape from our overly burdensome and complex selves (masochists) or to shore up a precarious sense of self (sadists). Blech. Fortunately, none of the battery of tests indicated that there was validity to any of theories when run through a sample of actual sadomasochists. It’s amazing how work like this still needs to be conducted in order to prove something that should be so patently obvious to anyone who has an ounce of critical thinking skills, so in that sense I ended up rolling my eyes a few times while reading this portion of the article, but I certainly appreciated the researchers’ thoroughness and relentless logic in explaining how they went about conducting their work, and the diplomacy with which they state their conclusions. I doubt I would have been so nice about it if I’d been authoring!
They make a couple of interesting demographic observations:
“In sum, the sadomasochists in our sample were relatively more likely to be in ongoing relationships than our comparison group, relatively more likely to report bisexual or homosexual proclivities, and tended to report more partners in their sexual histories than the comparison group. Taken together, a tentative picture emerges of our s/m sample as individuals whose sexual experiences and tastes in sexual partners may be broader than those of our sample of non-sadomasochists.”
Yep. That’s fair. Later, in the article’s conclusion, they write, “One might wonder, on the basis of these findings, whether sadomasochists are simply individuals for whom sex and sexuality play a relatively important role. One might wonder whether SM ought to be understood best as a game explored by the sexually sophisticated and adventurous, involving the manipulation of power for erotic purposes.” Also fair. A friend of mine says that what makes her different from non-kinky people is that, for her, sex is a hobby – and therefore pursued with the kind of creativity and enthusiasm that some reserve for, say, fine watercolour painting, or building extremely accurate model trains. Makes much sense to me.
The second study bugged me a little bit because the researchers’ logic felt a bit funny. Online sadomasochism and real-life sadomasochism are pretty darned different, in my humble opinion – not that online is necessarily bad, but it’s certainly dismissed by many real-life SMers as being a paltry substitute for the real thing, a practice engaged in by people who are too cowardly to just suck it up and come out to an event or a club, and a poor fantasy-land imitation of actual power exchange, not to mention that the physical experience is completely, or nearly completely, absent from online encounters.
They write, “As a follow-up, we then sought to examine the alternative perspective put forth by SM practitioners that sadomasochism is primarily about power, and not pain.” They quote Califia as the source of this idea, which makes me raise an eyebrow. While I’m not going to dispute that he might have written such a thing, I suspect this might be an instance of quoting out of context, or failing to sufficiently frame that statement in light of his other writings – Patrick is usually too nuanced in his analysis to make a blanket statement like that and expect that it would apply to all sadomasochists, or even most of them. It definitely annoys me to think that a team of researchers would base a study on such a simplistic statement about such an enormous and complex range of practices without questioning whether, perhaps, the motivations for sadomasochism might be different across the spectrum of its participants.
They continue, “To do this, we wanted to observe SM activities in progress so as to analyze the importance of power and the means by which it is exercised, implemented and controlled. However, obtaining access to SM interactions in progress proved to be difficult.”
Really? Is it truly all that difficult? I’m fairly certain that if a researcher wanted to watch some people play, they could go to a fetish night and simply open their eyes. Okay, so that approach wouldn’t fall within the confines of research guidelines for human subjects, but it certainly isn’t access that’s the problem. And when it comes to consent to research participation, sadomasochists have agreed to be filmed for documentaries, interviewed on the radio and in the newspaper, filmed for porn… lots of people most definitely consent to having their sadomasochistic activity observed, sometimes in visually recorded format. A researcher taking notes surely couldn’t be more threatening to potentially closeted subjects than a documentary-maker.
When it comes to finding potential subjects, it’s really not all that hard go through a publicly accessible venue or group and ask nicely whether anyone might consent to being observed while they play at the next dungeon party, for research purposes. Some players might even eroticize such an experience, for crying out loud! (Exhibitionism, anyone?) If efforts didn’t pan out in the researchers’ hometown of Ottawa, where the kink scene tends to be more closeted thanks to all the players who are government workers by day, they could have made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Montreal, or taken a quick train to Toronto, for access to thousands more publicly active kinky people. So to hear their reasoning being that real-life SM scenes are difficult to access makes me wonder whether they really tried all that hard, and if not, why not. Or, conversely, it makes me wonder if they made all kinds of efforts, but were rejected because there was something about their approach that was off-putting or offensive to their potential subjects. It’s really hard to know without speaking directly to the researchers, but the question definitely lingers.
All this being said, I did appreciate that they recognized the potential problem of evaluating SM based exclusively on online observations and so carried out a comparison of online SMers with real-life ones who agreed to fill out a questionnaire. They carried out a triple-pronged analysis of the results. Their conclusion? “…it appears that the virtual SM group was similar to real-life sadomasochists and dissimilar to non-sadomasochists, including fantasy role-players, on the self-report indices of sadomasochistic sexual proclivities.”
Fair enough. However, I think they could have gleaned some valuable information about where the potential differences might lie between the two groups if they’d asked why the online people chose not to play in real-life, or why the real-life people chose not to play online – that would most definitely have been an illuminating angle to take, and could have informed their subsequent analysis. I mean, your average model-train-building aficionado actually builds model trains, rather than exclusively joining an online group to talk about or pretend to build model trains – and wouldn’t the latter be a bit weird, and as such, wouldn’t basing a study of model-train-builders on such a population be comparably skewed? I get that the interest (proclivity) might be the same, but if the practice is so radically different, some distinction must exist. Still, it’s good that they came to no negative conclusions about online SMers based on their data.
As for the last study, it aimed to “assess the importance and role of power in SM interactions.” Once again, the data doesn’t cast a negative light on SMers, so I have to appreciate the researchers for their lack of anti-SM bias. At the same time, it feels kinda funny that they would assess the importance and role of power in SM interactions that take place exclusively online because really, when you’re doing SM online, what could you possibly be playing with other than power? There is no way to cause sensation, other than by using a power dynamic to compel one or more participants to self-inflict that sensation in the privacy of their own homes in a way that is not verifiable by anyone involved, including the dominant who’s actively taking part in the scenario. Necessarily, online SM is about power exchange. Therefore, necessarily, that power exchange must have a significant role, in a way that in real-life SM it might not. This is not the sort of thing you can control for in the way you can for personality traits or sexual history; the difference is inherent to the medium of the interaction. As a result, drawing any conclusions about the importance of power in SM from a sample of this kind means that it can only be relevant to people in a very similar situation, i.e., people who take part in SM online only.
The researchers address this by writing, “Nonetheless, the fact that real-life sadomasochists themselves tend to describe their encounters in terms of a power exchange suggests that these virtual scenarios may not be so very different from the real-life versions after all. Further, if in fact online SM encounters represent sadomasochistic fantasies, then the virtual events that transpire can reasonably be expected to reflect the aspects of SM that people find most desirable.”
That last piece is a problem for me. There’s a common saying in the BDSM community: “‘Never’ means wait six months.” In other words, people frequently show up in the real-life community saying that they will never want to (insert SM activity here), but as they are progressively exposed to it by means of seeing it take place, hearing others’ stories about it, reading about it and so forth, they slowly, or not so slowly, change their minds. People who show up in the BDSM world because they want to get flogged find themselves stuck full of needles and loving it. People who find piss play gross find themselves greedily lapping up urine. People who start out as submissives find themselves exploring dominance. And so on, and so forth. And that’s not even counting the SM practices that people might not even know exist until they see it happen – it’s very hard to fantasize about something you haven’t thought of yet.
On the flip side, a lot of people show up in the BDSM world with intense and elaborate fantasies and very little practical information. It doesn’t take long to realize that the fantasy of 24/7 domestic servitude can be a lot sexier than the reality of it, or that activities that make for a great come shot during solo masturbation often don’t translate into real-life play with the same excitement charge. So real-life SM practice is often markedly different from fantasy SM precisely because it happens in real life, where things don’t always go according to a script, and the unexpected weaves together with the pre-existing to form a whole that simply can’t be experienced in a one-dimensional medium like the Internet.
All in all, “Understanding Sadomasochism” does some excellent work toward matter-of-factly debunking a lot of the prevailing myths about BDSM that poorly informed academics and professionals have turned into “expert” theory and diagnostic criteria, which is an excellent project and one that I haven’t seen undertaken by any other researchers in this way. My praise largely goes toward Study 1 of the article. I just wish they’d done a bit more work toward ironing out the problems in the second and third studies rather than explaining and justifying why those problems shouldn’t be too relevant. Unfortunately they are relevant, and although I’m very happy that the researchers didn’t draw any pejorative conclusions about SMers, the flaws makes those studies much less helpful on the whole.