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How Queer IS BDSM?

by Gert Hekma in Lifestyle & Fashion , 11 augustus 2012

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar


Margot Weiss’s “Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality” (Duke University Press 2011) purports to be an ethnography of the Bay Area BDSM scene, but it isn’t. There is not one play scene described, there is not one orgasm reported.

Instead, it’s a queer-theory critique of the supposed transgressiveness of the BDSM world, based on Weiss’s observations and interviews, as interpreted through a familiar roster of gender and queer theorists. Unfortunately, her critique is deeply flawed. In numerous ways, she fails to do justice to, or shed light on, the interesting and important issues, practices, and communities she has chosen to explore.

Weiss visited many parties, clubs, munches (local social events of BDSM-ers with no sex-play, and where fetish clothing is unwanted), and specialized classes. She volunteered in some BDSM organizations like the main leather organization “Society of Janus” and visited events of the leatherdyke “Exiles.” She participated in the digital Bay Area BDSM world. And, perhaps most importantly, she interviewed sixty-one BDSM practitioners.

The interviewees are divided into two categories, the “old guard” and the “new guard.” The “old guard” are the gay leather men who lived and played in the Folsom Street district of San Francisco before AIDS, faced partial expulsion because of gentrification, and formed a separate world on the margins of capitalist society. The “new guard” lives spread over the Bay Area, is more often heterosexual and works in the internet industry. Yet her own recruitment strategies - she included few kinky gay men in her research - rather than reality may have inspired this old guard / new guard dichotomy (a dichotomy that Gayle Rubin, for instance, rejects).

An important concept for Weiss is what she calls “the circuit”: how BDSM and the neo-liberal market are mutually dependent. In her portrayal, therefore, the BDSM “new guard” are people whose labor blends the private and the public, and whose work never stops. They are typical but prosperous victims of the neo-liberal social-economic conditions that require a life investment in companies that themselves are not very loyal to their personnel. In her view, BDSM is revealed as a private, escapist answer to a socioeconomic world where subjects are subjugated and have little political and economic control. Worse still, according to Weiss, BDSM primarily reinforces rather than challenges destructive, dominant ideologies: neo-liberalism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

Weiss stresses the neo-liberal foundations of the BDSM scene. Her main argument is the large financial investment in BDSM toys and clothing, which she estimates at $1500-$3000 per person, apart from memberships and party fees. She fails to put such expenses in the proper scale: compared to the standard spending patterns of “normative” family life (raising children, buying cars and homes, etc.), let alone the luxury expenses of the wealthy, paying several thousand dollars for kinky sex is hardly a huge expenditure. Another issue is that poor, ethnic minority and working-class people rarely have the chance to participate in the affluent BDSM scene.

Politically Correct Litany

The author’s major critique of BDSM concerns racism, sexism, and heteronormativity. Or rather, her repetition of that PC litany of terms would lead one to believe that she is concerned with all three. However, the third term, heteronormativity, does not merit even a single example. The result is queer theory without queers and with no discussion of straight norms.

Weiss frames her discussion of BDSM and sexism through the debate between radical feminists and sex liberals over whether BDSM reinforces female oppression or is transgressive in gender and sexual terms (as per Michel Foucault and Gayle Rubin). She takes safe middle ground between both positions. The sexism is well illustrated and one proof is the over representation of male tops with female bottoms in this straight new guard scene. But her interviewees are well aware of these issues, and offer sophisticated answers to questions about it. Yet Weiss rarely does justice to their complicated thoughts on this subject. Instead, she implicitly treats them as naive dupes of dominant ideology, and continues to deplore BDSM’s sexism. This is one of the fundamental problems with her book, and is repeated in her treatment of race and racism.

Thus, her argument regarding BDSM’s sexism is based on her critique of the view that BDSM is safe, sane and consensual – the SSC ideology – plus a private affair totally separate from the real social world. Weiss argues, quoting the usual queer and gender names and theories, that one cannot separate private and public and that consent is a liberal concept that obscures social inequalities. Yet it is clear from her interviews that her informants realize this, discuss it, and make a strategic choice for their sexual interests. Moreover, Weiss never suggests how they could pass her political test: how could anyone accept the PC line on sexism and consent, or on consumerism, as Weiss does, and still have an erotic or even social life – as BDSM-er, as straight or gay, or as consumer – given the pervasive sexism, heteronormativity, neo-liberalism, and many other activating factors of social inequality?

At least BDSM people, who celebrate unequal relations, have to think about these issues. Vanilla couples consider such issues much less, given that many uncritically support the assumption that vanilla sex is characterized by equality.

Kinky Hang-Ups

Sexism isn’t really Weiss’s main concern; racism is. Weiss continuously complains that BDSM with slave auctions, bondage, shackles, whipping is not only replaying an American history of white exploitation of black slaves, but performing and continuing it. By cordoning kinky sex off as a private affair from the real world, the BDSM people are able to do as if this question doesn’t concern them. And again, although her informants realize and think about the racism and the arousal that submission and humiliation create for them, and the links between their private and the real world, she wants them to take this criticism much further. But very queer theory like, she does offer no concrete answers beyond what her respondents say. How should they deal with kinky fantasies? Does she expect them to give up on them, as they expected in the past of homosexuals and masturbators? In fact, she starts to discuss the Abu Ghraib scandal as if it is relevant to the Bay Area BDSM scene but this is again her idea that private fantasies have public ramifications – something few people doubt or will deny and relevant in all fields as sociologists know.

Weiss should have rather asked the opposite: how public imagery influenced her informants’ sexual preferences. Now it looks like the BDSM people for a change or for fun engage with racist and sexist fantasies while the backgrounds of such interests are not at all explored. She assumes that people can make a simple choice for kinky sex and are not stimulated to do so because of deeply ingrained personal backgrounds, for sure informed by stories that circulate in society – and in which figure brutal Arabs, murderous Nazis, cowboys and Indians, rapists, soldiers and prisoners, police cells and concentration camps, operation rooms, zoos, black and also white slavery and whatever inspires sexual imaginations. This is never a simple choice as Weiss seems to believe – as if liberalism has suddenly overtaken her. She wouldn’t say so for gay or straight or black sexual preferences and can’t say so for kinky interests. People don’t control their sexual hang-ups; one may influence what to do with them, but not their presence and contents.

Gay, queer, straight or BDSM preferences are not inborn, but socially created and individually adapted. This is something that queerly escapes our queer theorist – here no Freud, Lacan or better no John Gagnon or Ken Plummer with their sexual scripts and telling stories. Her lack of understanding of the respondents is probably related to not being personally involved. She reports a discussion with a practitioner of BDSM whether she is into BDSM and she claims not and continues that most respondents sympathized with her as a queer, kinky-friendly non-participant.

One starts to wonder what this means seen her final claim that the sexual act is deeply imbricated in ideological processes just after she discussed Abu Ghraib – as if BDSM people have a stronger responsibility for such racist state terrorism than other US citizens because they realize its erotic potential.

Narrow-Minded

Very queerly she doesn’t extend her criticism of the sexism and racism of the new guard that uses the idea of transgression to validate its sexual practices to the theorists who proposed it, Foucault, Rubin and other people who belong to the old guard and inspired queer thinking before new guard Butler. They didn’t make the balancing act between radical feminists and sex liberals that Weiss engages in. Why aren’t these theorists the point of opprobrium that she heaps on the new guard?

The book engages with interesting questions regarding BDSM, private and public worlds, consent, neo-liberalism, relations with racism and sexism, but the reader would have liked to see less free floating and quite repetitive theorizing and more concrete information on the BDSM population, and should also have liked to see more of the interviews that were done. The author only offers bits and pieces of all her info, never tabulates them, shows more interest in racism than in other relevant forms of discrimination (e.g. ageism or sissyphobia), shows more of the normative than of the non-normative couples (so rather male dom and female sub that fit her obsession than black top with white bottom) and has an exclusive interest in how BDSM informs race and gender relations rather than the reverse circuit how those inform kinky interests.

She strongly attacks sex liberal but never radical feminist positions. Being impressed by queer and gender theories she totally forgot to engage with BDSM realities and shows a complete lack of understanding of sexual pleasures that she only sees through her political lens. But isn’t this typical of much of the theorizing she relies on? Her view on BDSM is basically narrow-minded and intractable.

Note
1. Very different is Staci Newmahr’s ethnography “Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy,” Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2011 where they abound.



 







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