the mirror of sadomasochism

I’m pushing on with my project of reviewing all the essays in the Kleinplatz and Moser anthology Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. That said, I’ve actually decided to skip a couple of them—specifically, two informative essays about the legal status of SM in the UK (“The Spanner Trials and the Changing Law on Sadomasochism in the UK” by Chris White) and in the US (“Negotiating Limits: The Legal Status of SM in the United States” by Robert B. Ridinger). This isn’t because I find these essays to be in any way irrelevant; in fact if you can get your hands on them I strongly encourage you to read them. They provide an excellent overall picture of how these two legal systems deal with the question of SM. No, it’s simply that I can’t think of much to say about these essays aside from, yep, that sure is interesting stuff to learn. If I were more of a legal historian, I might have more critique, but as it stands, I can simply read and appreciate. So yeah. Check ‘em out.

Today my focus is on the essay “Discrimination of SM-Identified Individuals” by Susan Wright. Wright coordinated the NOW (the US’s National Organization for Women) SM Policy Reform Project beginning in 1996, and is currently the Spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), which has carried out survey studies about discrimination against SM practitioners, most particularly, the Violence & Discrimination Survey, which “was distributed electronically and in paper form from April 1998 to February 1999 to SM-identified individuals who were members of an SM roup or attending a large SM conference or contest.” The NCSF also makes public position statements and provides legal aid services to people who are being legally challenged due to their SM practices. So Wright is definitely well placed to give a status update on such things.

For starters, she quotes some interesting statistics. I was surprised to learn that “70% of the respondents reported they were at least partially closeted.” The number was apparently included in the essay to demonstrate how large a section of SMers are still in the closet, but I saw it the other way around: should we assume that means that nearly 30% of those respondents are not at all closeted? I find that number to be shockingly high! Perhaps my perceptions of such things are off, but the idea that nearly a third of BDSMers are completely out of the closet is a bit mind-blowing. I mean, I’m about as out of the closet as I can get short of appearing in leather on the cover of Time magazine, and I still haven’t actually told my grandmother I’m a sadomasochist, so I suppose I’m technically still “partially closeted.” And I don’t live in the country presided over by Bush and his cronies for the last eight years. Perhaps we should instead interpret that these results actually mean that the 30% who are not “at least partially” closeted are either all the way out or completely closeted (though I realize the latter does fit under “at least partially”), which might reduce that to a figure substantially smaller than 30%. If my first idea is accurate though, then hey, props to the 30%!

Wright spends a chunk of her essay discussing the politics of SM within the feminist movement. She explains that in 1980, “Members of NOW pased a conference resolution entitled The 1980 Delineation of Lesbian Rights Issues,” which “stated that NOW rejected sadomasochism along with pornography, public sex, and pederasty, because these issues ‘violate the feminist priniciples upon which NOW was founded.’”

She then quotes a survey initiated at the 1993 March on Washington by Female Trouble, a women’s SM group based in Philadelphia. The results of that survey are equally intriguing:

“Of the 539 SM-identified women who took part in the survey, over half reported they had experienced some form of physical assault or discrimination within the lesbian community because of their SM practices (Keres, 1994, p. 23). The surveys found twenty-five percent had suffered physical assault, including being hit, shoved, jabbed, chased, spat upon or objects thrown at them by women in the lesbian community. Another thirty percent were refused admittance or ejected form social, recreational, political, educational and spiritual groups within the lesbian community (Keres, 1994, p. 8).”

And she quotes Vivienne Walker-Crawford’s essay in the 1982 anthology Against Sadomasochism:

“Sadomasochism is a cancerous growth that has taken firm root in most wimmin [sic]. Sexual sadomasochism is exposure of that growth on very intimate terms. The proponents of sexual sadomasochism have turned themselves inside out to mirror our disesase. This disease is frightening in its enormity. We immediately recoil, not wanting to recognize its vileness. Here we “beat the messenger with the bad news.” We beat and badger these wimmin, throwing our internal fear and confusion onto them.”

Now here’s where it starts to emerge, for me, that we’re dealing with a type of feeling—an emotional reaction to SM—that generalizes far beyond the inner workings of the lesbian community. I obviously don’t buy into the idea that SM is a “cancerous growth” or a “disease,” but I do think that the deep connection between sexual arousal, power relations, and intense physical experience (which some might call “violence”) is wired into all of us to varying degrees. It comes out in all sorts of ways through our society’s institutions and constructions. Some of those manifestations are vile and disastrous—torture in prisons, rape, sexual assault—and most certainly deserve to be denounced. It comes out in far more common manifestations that are also problematic, but in very mundane ways—sexualized violence in movies (and no, I’m not talking about porn) and television shows, rigid and heterosexist ideas about how courtship is to be conducted (powerful male “pursuit” and sneaky female “hard-to-get” dynamics), socially sanctioned power dynamics in sex and marriage, the hush-hush eroticism and condoned violence of sports and athletic culture, and so forth. And, big surprise, it also comes out in ways that are not so problematic—such as in certain forms of spiritual practice (the more I read about Zen Buddhism, the more parallels I see!), intense but controlled physical pursuits (martial arts, say), and in consensual and mutually desired sexual and relational practice.

It comes as no surprise that some people would get upset about those who embark on a journey to explore these tendencies, which are quintessentially human, within their intimate relationships. Walker-Crawford hits the nail on the head: this innate human propensity to associate the intense experiences and ideas of eroticism and violence is “frightening in its enormity,” and people do “immediately recoil, not wanting to recognize its vileness”—but that fear and that recoiling cause people to reject what may actually be one of the very few potentially healthy and nourishing methods of engaging with these fearsome, and universal, realities. They aren’t vile, unless a given individual makes choices that render them such.

A feminist project to neuter and equalize all human relations, in bed and otherwise, is not only outrageously unrealistic, but speaking for myself, it’s not desirable either. Power is not a bad thing, any more than forks are bad things. Just as a fork can be used to eat with or to poke someone’s eye out, power can be used to move communities and people in progressive directions just as it can be used to beat down and oppress. If we run away from any expression of power because we associate it with vileness, we’re necessarily running away from our own capacity to weild it for positive purposes. A feminist project to empower people (women and otherwise) to engage in experiences and relations in ways that are healthy and consensual, that allow people to grow and learn and explore—now that’s a project I can understand. And by no means am I only talking about sexual or sadomasochistic relations—I’m talking about the meat of everyday living in society.

In an interesting related event, I just got off the phone with a most interesting individual who’s doing research on leatherdyke history in the States, and she pointed out that feminism still hasn’t resolved the question of SM. She feels, from her research, that in fact it’s been de-prioritized rather than actually settled, and I totally get what she means. It’s reflected in Wright’s essay, too. Following the work of the SM Policy Reform Project, which she headed up within NOW…

“[Elizabeth] Toledo[, Action Vice-President of NOW,] proposed a compromise that the original 1980 Delineation of Lesbian Rights be replaced with a statement of rights which would no longer oppose SM practices, nor would it openly support SM practices. (…) With the support of NOW delegates and members at the July 1999 National Conference, NOW’s official policy against SM was removed. The 1999 Delineation of Lesbian Rights replaced The 1980 Delineation of Lesbian Rights Issues that contained NOW’s anti-SM policy. (…) [It] is straightforward and neither condemns nor supports any specific form of lesbian sexuality. (…) Though still not openly supportive of SM practitioners, the feminist community is backing away from intolerance and antipathy.”

In my opinion, this in-between position is likely due to some combination of the advent of the Internet’s effects on interpersonal communication and SM community-building, the proliferation of titillating but “comfortable” SM imagery in pop culture and advertising, a general turn toward sex-positivity among third-wave feminists as manifested in feminist cultural production (books, magazines, art, etc.) and businesses (witness the blossoming of women-friendly sex toy stores), the general sense of needing to rally against the rabid forces of right-wing sexual repression (certainly in the States, though much less so in Canada) and various other factors. Nonetheless, it is true that the question isn’t resolved, and that makes me wonder how the future will play out.

Now, this brings us to the issue of SM politics. Once again, as I have written about before, I take issue with some pro-SM advocates’ oversimplification of the issues and realities of SM. Wright does make room for bad apples: “Abusive individuals can be found in all groups, but SM itself is not inherently abusive.” Fair enough, and very true. But she also frames a definition of SM that functions only in very particular conditions: “The participants consent freely to a power exchange, and can withdraw that consent and stop the interaction at any time (Houlberg, 1993). Limits and the level of desired stimulation are discussed, and communication takes place before, during, and after SM activities.”

In other words, while her position that SM is not inherently abusive is very accurate and very much needs to be insisted on in today’s political context as much as in the one that was operational in the early 90s, it is tricky to define “good” SM in such a narrow framework, because people who may operate outside it—and nonetheless are not abusive—may then be undeservingly tarred with the brush of violence and coercion. Of course participants consent freely to power exchange, but in 24/7 dynamics, a withdrawal of consent is not taken nearly as lightly as during a scene; “stopping the interaction at any time” might mean calling red on an entire relationship. Yes, that brings more risk with it than scene-based play; accordingly, such dynamics require that much more work and trust-building. Of course limits and desires are discussed, but sometimes they’re discussed at the beginning of a long-term contract that lasts for months or years or perpetually, not every time play occurs the way SM appears to be framed here. And of course communication takes place all the time, but the kind of extremely subtle non-verbal or formally phrased verbal communication that might take place in a Master/slave relationship might easily be judged as non-existent or invalid by an outside observer who doesn’t have a personal understanding of deep power dynamics. In the same way as I take issue (here) with The Network/La Red’s position that all SM is done with a safeword, I take issue with an NCSF position that excludes alternate ways of exploring SM dynamics and experience.

The problem is illustrated in a keynote address to the 2008 Master/slave Conference, “The Rise and Fall of the M/s Community (A Cautionary Observation),” given by Skip Chasey. He writes:

“Don’t think for a moment that the larger kink community has got our backs. We’re the outsiders among the outsiders, and the reality is that those of us whose D/s proclivities extend beyond the dungeon are more often than not considered suspect by our leather brothers and sisters, who view us as a threat to their social acceptance.

“I can tell you from first-hand experience that while our legal system is sometimes willing to turn a blind eye with respect to one’s SM activities in connection with family law and guardianship matters—after all, everyone knows that SM is just “kinky sex,” right?—that’s unfortunately not the case when it comes to evaluating the qualifications of persons who participate in Master/slave relationships. M/s is still virtually always a disqualifying taboo. Because of the heightened scrutiny we receive from the powers that be, many in the leather community would like nothing better than to sever the link between them and us. If you think I’m simply paranoid, then perhaps you’re unaware that at the 1998 Leather Leadership Conference, a policy statement on the issue of “SM vs. Abuse” was drafted containing some imprecise verbiage that could be interpreted as a condemnation of the dynamic that underlies virtually every Master/slave relationship. And when a few years later that problem was brought to the attention of the kink community’s leading national advocacy organization, who at the time was widely promoting that policy statement, their leadership responded by saying, and I quote, “Those people”—meaning us—“are on the fringe. We don’t care about them.””

The policy statement he refers to is exactly the one quoted by Wright in her essay. And if Wright’s statistics show that your average kinkster faces problems…

“The 1998 Violence & Discrimination Survey by the NCSF documented a pattern of discrimination against SM practitioners. Of the 1017 SM-identified individuals surveyed, thirty-six percent had suffered some kind of violence or harassment because of their SM practices, while thirty percent had been victims of job discrimination.”

… then surely, if the NCSF itself potentially discriminates, whether by default or by design, against those of us who operate outside the dungeon, then we too face at least that much risk, and possibly more.

Wright concludes her essay by writing, “Groups and individuals are afraid to ‘come out’ and make their presence known because of the pervasive legal and social discrimination that can ensue. Yet the best way to change the social perception of SM is for SM-identified individuals and SM groups to become more visible. Therefore the negative cycle is perpetuated.”

So here we are, back at the questions of closeting and of discrimination and rejection. SM dykes have historically been pushed out of feminist groups; 24/7 M/s leatherfolk are allegedly being pushed out of SM groups; and all of this, because some people have a really hard time gazing upon certain outward manifestations that reflect a human condition that’s common to all of us—the fundamental and varied connections we make between arousal, power and pain. Kinksters themselves aren’t immune to that fear, but I certainly hope that with a bit of effort and courage, more of us can find it in ourselves to look in that mirror and see who we are.

5 thoughts on “the mirror of sadomasochism

  1. Mea culpa!

    I used to be one of those kinksters who thinks 24/7 is automatically abusive and unhealthy. Then I met you 😉

    Seriously, though, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. While I have found that 24/7 D/s isn’t for me, I will always defend your (and anyone else’s) right to practice it, especially when it is done in an ethical and well though-out fashion.

    Next time someone gives you a hard time about it, send them to me, the scene-based pervert, and I will set things right 🙂

  2. Started on Fetlife and followed a link and a link and a link, etc. I’m very glad to have ended up here, this is an excellent essay and your critique of the essay matches my own to a large degree.

    You may end up getting cited in my dissertation as I continue with the copyediting!

  3. Gentlemantop – Always nice when different varieties of perverts can get each others’ backs. 😉 Thanks.

    Edward – Nice to meet you! I’m flattered. Cite away! Good luck on your dissertation!

  4. Thank you! It is very nice to meet you as well – I was noticing all the people we know in common and found the little world of kink rather amusing again. The dissertation is actually defended, revised, and passed already, I’m just cleaning it up in copyediting and finding all those places that need a little bit of tweaking…

  5. I’m writing a paper on adult relationships and learning and came across this essay during my research. I recognized some familiar names, too, not that I know folks personally.

    Thanks for posting this!

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