BDSM goes to college, but doesn’t enrol in Camille Paglia’s class

SRB_ivan_bdsm

No longer only the province of psychiatrists and pornographers, BDSM (Bondage and Discipline/Domination and Submission/Sadomasochism) is a burgeoning subject for sexuality studies. This interest is warranted. Sadomasochism is deeply ingrained culturally, with binary-gendered character types deriving from early twentieth-century sexological and psychoanalytic theory, which expanded the remit of the Marquis de Sade’s porno-philosophical Les 120 journées de Sodom (1785) and Baron von Sacher-Masoch’s fantastic Venus im Pelz (1870). But BDSM is also the contemporary fashionista’s fantasy domain, from Dolce & Gabanna’s tight-laced pre-prison creations, to the latex-clad wonders of Rihanna’s “S&M” videoclip, to the little black leather harnesses that gay men wear to parties, all stripped of any relationship to what sadomasochists do in their dungeons (and yet a good way of flagging potential pleasures, with strategically-worn leather items and protruding black hankies).  BDSM is still pathologised by its continued inclusion under “paraphilias” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM5, 2013), and it is still on shaky legal ground – both in terms of its practice and the production of sadomasochistic erotica (check your jurisdiction before purchasing those handcuffs or posting erotic photos on the web). And yet, as a number of  social scientists have recently shown, there is a flourishing “scene” of people using BDSM to explore the limits of their relationships, their bodies, and their sexualities, who meet for “munches”, go to “play parties”, run workshops on the techniques of erotic torture, and spend time in the BDSM-specific corners of the WWW. Even in Singapore there are private parties in Geylang where these creatures from the pages of psychiatric texts intermingle.

E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is the unrealistic other book-end of a growth in a sexual subculture to Pauline Réage’s L’histoire d’O (1955). From its origins in the brothels of Victorian London and Paris, to the burly patrons of 1950s gay leather bars, to the practitioners of shibari (Japanese bondage), BDSM comes in many forms: leather dykes, rope bunnies, straight dom(me)s, and fisting aficionados are open secrets walking in our midst. Sadomasochistic societies such as Janus, or the lesbian group, Samois, did much to formalise BDSM (writing guidelines for “playing” and providing opportunities for like-minded sexual explorers to meet). Many large cities have Leather Pride Associations putting on parties, where people can use Saint Andrew’s crosses to restrain victims for sexualised beatings.  A subculture[1] has grown in opposition (and oft-times, ignorance) to the psychopathologisation of sadomasochism. There are many kinds of people who practice BDSM. Some of them have been been examined in the books under discussion.

Recent academic studies of BDSM include an ethnography of practitioners in San Francisco (Weiss, a non-practising participant-observer who attended a variety of play parties, munches, workshops, and other BDSM social arena); play parties in an anonymised American city (Newmahr, an ethnographer who took up BDSM to further enter the scene as a participant-observer); an account of sadomasochism in London (Beckmann, whose sociological analysis of the UK scene considers the meanings of pain and the body in their cultural and legal settings). Lindemann’s study of professional dominatrices is the first to look at BDSM sex work, and Rubin’s recently-collected papers that laid the groundwork for Queer Theory, make up the recent social studies of BDSM.

These books differ theoretically. Gayle Rubin’s essays are invaluable for understanding the history and practices of kink in the gay and lesbian worlds; even Foucault cites Rubin on a rare occasion when he discusses sadomasochism,[2] a practice in which he indulged.[3] Margot Weiss follows Rubin’s lead in historicising the growth of BDSM out of the San Franciscan gay and lesbian leather scenes into a population of predominantly white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, professional, consumerist kinksters. Of particular value is Weiss’s discussion of the material culture of BDSM; the whips and other toys that she examines to show the commodification of sadomasochistic objects.  Beckmann’s book is valuable for its attention to the famous English “Spanner” Trial (R v Brown 1992-93), as well as the ways in which BDSM can be considered a sophisticated “bodily practice” (an elaboration of Marcel Mauss’s concept), where practitioners expand their limits through eroticised pain, or their relationships through formalised behaviours. Not all of these studies are as theoretically ambitious. Newmahr’s and Lindemann’s ethnographies do not meditate enough upon what these activities mean outside of the words of their informants, and deliberately neglect the historicism that the other authors employ to interpret sadomasochistic practices (although Lindemann does gesture towards a Bourdieuian interpretation). Typical of ethnography, Newmahr and Lindemann stick closely to the rich worlds of their interviewees, and so are mostly valuable for the data they provide.

Not everyone is happy with this social-scientific interest in BDSM.  Camille Paglia, the media-savvy academic for sex studies in the early 1990s, recently slammed three of these books as products of Gender Studies programmes, a misinterpretation which allows her to spit vitriol because they did not address her Sexual Personae (Yale UP, 1990). Her ignorant assessment of BDSM as “horrific” and “barbaric” is as worrying as her inability to engage with social theory. While her own representations of kink from popular culture are not based upon any sociological research into what BDSM practitioners do, she calls these works the “collapse of scholarly standards in ideology-driven academe” – not because of their interest in non-mainstream sex, but because they engage with the theories of Judith Butler and Foucault, whose dominance of the theoretical landscape Paglia resents. Her “conclusion, after wide reading in anthropology and psychology, was that sadomasochism is an archaic ritual form that descends from prehistoric nature cults and that erupts in sophisticated ‘late’ phases of culture, when a civilization has become too large and diffuse and is starting to weaken or decline.” Max Nordau, the now-forgotten late-nineteenth-century degeneration theorist, might have loved this, but we have moved on.

Despite the richness of understanding to be drawn from these studies of BDSM, more can be done. Foucault, with his corporeal emphasis, noted: “S/M is… the actual creation of new possibilities of pleasure that one might never have imagined before… What S/M practices show us is that we can produce pleasure beginning with very strange objects and using certain bizarre parts of our bodies in very unusual situations”[4] This focus on corporeal pleasure rather than identity is one key way to investigate sadomasochism, where “the body [is] made entirely malleable by pleasure: something that opens itself, tightens, palpitates, beats, gapes.”[5]  While this focus on limit experiences makes sense in Foucault’s Nietzschean and Bachelardian conceptions of the emergence of new forms of life, these “kinds of people” (to use Hacking’s phrase) are simultaneously regulated (especially via the law and psychiatry). BDSM is fertile ground for analysing how  regulation is resisted through sexual practices, although the books under discussion do not address psychiatry in detail.

Further emphasis on classification and regulation could take its cue from historical epistemologists Arnold Davidson or Ian Hacking and show how sadomasochists are “made up”. Sadomasochism’s inclusion as a “paraphilia” is a part of the psychoanalytic heritage of the DSM5.  Although the DSM III (1980) strenuously jettisoned its links with psychoanalysis, BDSM remains pathologised around domination and submission, and around pleasure sought in causing and receiving (sexualised) pain, in basically the same way that it was framed by psychoanalysis. Critical study would demonstrate the paucity of pathologising sadomasochistic practices simply because they do not fit a norm that was established within psychoanalytical theory. It is not clear that BDSM is a pathological sexual dysfunction at all, and as such should be dropped from the DSM.

Regardless of this psycho-legal construction, sadomasochists continue to perform in “safe, sane and consensual ways”, whereby they resist psychopathologisation.  The burgeoning field of BDSM studies illustrates that sexual pleasure is experienced far more expansively than portrayed in the pages of the DSM.  Researching and describing what people do challenges the narrow construction of what is considered normal, something that we see in popular culture if not in the official discourses. Sociology may set sadomasochism free.

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Andrea Beckmann, The Social Construction of Sexuality and Perversion: Deconstructing sadomasochism, (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)

Danielle J. Lindemann, Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Staci Newmahr, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy (Indiana University Press, 2011)

Camille Paglia, “Scholars in Bondage: Dogma dominates studies of kink”, Chronicle of Higher Education (accessed 2 June 2013, at http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-in-Bondage/139251/).

Gayle Rubin, Deviations (Duke UP, 2011)

Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (Duke University Press, 2011)

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Ivan Crozier is a ARC Future Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney.  His research interests include the history of psychiatry, history of sexuality and history of the body.  He is currently writing a conceptual history of the culture-bound syndrome koro.

[1]   In the west, largely white, increasingly straight, middle-class; but this is not always the case in non-western countries, where to my knowledge BDSM communities have not been studied, despite the existence of such subcultures in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, etc.

[2]   Michel Foucault,  “Sexe, pouvoir, et la politique de l’identité,” Dits et ecrits, II, Paris: Gallimard, 2001 p. 1556

[3]   See James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

[4]   Michel Foucault, “Sexe, pouvoir, et la politique de l’identité,”  pp. 1556-57

[5]   Michel Foucault, “Sade: Sergeant of Sex,” trans. John Johnston, in Michel Foucault: Essential Works vol. 2: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, Ed. James D. Faubion. New York: The New Press, 1998, p.224

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