BDSM (the sexual equivalent of being into Renaissance faires) Part 1: Some Background and a Few Warnings

28 Nov

I fancied myself a real iconoclast when I was a teenager. I had pink hair, lots of holes in my ears and various other places, and a penchant for Keystone Light, cigarettes, Black Flag, and responding to nearly all queries with, “Fuck that.” Being involved in one brand of counterculturalism predisposes one to sympathizing with members of other rebellious subcultures, so I naturally had a few goth friends (I mean goth in the 90s sense, not the current sense – goths are supposed to be maudlin and listen to The Smiths, they’re not supposed to be angry and listen to Avenged Sevenfold). The mixture of teen hormones, Siouxie and the Banshees records, and the bad influence of a few of these goths led me to a fleeting fascination with the world of BDSM. It sounded transgressive as fuck, which I was definitely down with, but I really had no idea at the time what went on in the BDSM scene. The internet was still the domain of adults who wore braces back then, and I had no idea of the existence of scene magazines or anything of the sort. My vision of the BDSM scene was a shadowy mélange of brocade corsets, Soft Cell songs, and the kind of sexual histrionics only teenagers and idiots are capable of imagining without laughing. You could say, I suppose, that I had a Hot Topic-esque understanding of BDSM.

I am loathe to admit this in a public forum, but I worked at a Hot Topic store when I was 18 and 19. Actually (ugh), I was the manager of a Hot Topic. Don’t worry – I knew it was a bunch of poser bullshit, and I made sure my employees and customers also knew it, but I worked there. This was the mid-90s, the era that saw the rise of shopping mall counterculturalism and era in which incense, plastic pants, and band t-shirts made the jump from the bong shop to the shop next door to Wet Seal. It was the worst era in the history of music, youth culture, and fashion the world had yet seen, and I think a cultural sewer spill started then that has created the cesspool of uncreativity we now live in.  It was the era that gave us The Crow, Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails, three cultural phenomena that would eventually make the world into the kind of place where Marines can call themselves goth and people who can’t get enough of Adam Sandler can get into S&M and buy each other leopard-print fur handcuffs as bridal shower gifts.

But that hadn’t happened yet, so I was curious rather than derisive… for a few days. I lived in San Diego at the time, and the gay part of town, Hillcrest, in addition to having one of the best record stores in the 619 area code, also had a BDSM gear store called Whiplash. One day on an outing to that record store I convinced a friend to go into Whiplash with me. I’d like to say I got a thorough education on what BDSM was all about that day, but all I left the store knowing was that there were people in the world who wore head-to-toe latex catsuits with tassels on the crown and pre-installed butt plugs and that there were more varieties of whips than there were bands I thought were “gay.”

I picked up a magazine that day that would provide me with plenty of fodder for thought and snickering over the following few weeks. It was basically a collection of ads for dommes who charged for their services, and my friends and I spent many a drunken night prank calling the phone numbers and coming up with explanations for what kinds of sex acts the euphemisms in the ads really referred to (dude, what the fuck is “flying with champagne and caviar”?). We decided to take our “research” a step further in internet chat rooms (hey, we were teenagers, and what else did teenagers do with the internet in the mid-90s but irritate people in chat rooms?). Half fascinated and half delirious with mirth, we told strangers we wanted to get into S&M and asked them what they thought. Of course we were immediately inundated with private messages from old men, which we shrugged off. It got really boring. No one wanted to tell us about the parties where everyone listened to Joy Division in libraries with Gothic architectural flourishes while wearing corsets and blindfolds and lightly spanking each other with riding crops, so we forgot all about it. We had no idea, obviously, that we had stumbled onto the real world of BDSM and that our vision of the whole thing only existed in Anne Rice novels.

I didn’t think much about BDSM after that episode until recently, and I’ve only thought about it lately because it’s come up in a few random conversations I’ve had about whether there’s such a thing as an inherently degrading sex act (see Porn Part 9, forthcoming).  I’ve always left BDSM alone because I thought of it as a private sexual preference (I still do) and I’m not really into discussing people’s private sexual behaviors. I talk about sex a lot, but it’s usually in the context of discussing larger cultural forces and how they tend to play out in people’s personal lives. I don’t condemn specific behaviors (unless they’re patently fucked up, which you’ll see some of in the third post), but rather prefer to discuss the ways in which our desires to perform certain acts might reflect the influence of oppressive cultural ideas about gender, power, and sexuality. (I want everyone to re-read that last sentence before they even consider commenting on this post or any others in the forthcoming series. I’m discussing the dynamics involved in BDSM, not telling anyone who practices BDSM that they suck or should be ashamed of themselves. I’m not going to approve comments from people who want to pretend there’s no difference between the two.)

I read other radical feminist blogs. I know what the prevailing opinion on BDSM is. But I wasn’t ready to just dismiss the whole thing without doing some research of my own. I had a long conversation about the topic with the Esquire, and we figured one approach would be to put a personal ad on a website that will remain unnamed in four markets (New York, LA, San Francisco, and San Diego) to see what kinds of responses we’d get and to see what we could glean about BDSM therefrom. The ad was for a woman in her 20s interested in exploring submission (and that’s about all the ad said). In four days we got over 400 responses, and I read them all very carefully. I then wandered around the internet looking at various BDSM info sites, reading up on the various BDSM societies in cities around the world, and looking at BDSM porn. That’s right, I took about nine for the team (it wasn’t cool, so I expect any of you I happen to run across to buy me at least four beers to repay me for suffering the trauma).

I’m anticipating several objections to this approach. First, I suppose people will argue that it’s uncool of me to post a fake personal ad. I don’t care. Bots do it all the time. Second, people might argue that by presenting myself as a female submissive, I’m seeking out the kinds of responses that will confirm my suspicions that BDSM is all about men dominating women. Wrong.  I also posted an ad for a submissive male and got almost no responses from women. Third, I’m sure I’m going to hear about how empowering dominating a man can be for a woman, and that I’m focusing on female submission to confirm my own conclusions. Wrong again, but I’ll get to that later. Fourth, I’m sure plenty of people will bring up BDSM among lesbians and gay men. I’ll get to that later, too, but for now I’ll just say that the point here is that mixing sex with power is a problem, and that in the vast, large, wide, ample, immense, huge majority of cases, men wield the power and exercise it on women. 

Basically, all of the objections people are going to raise are going to be attempts to poke holes in the claim that BDSM is nothing but a distilled and adorned manifestation of our culture’s sick gender dynamic of man as subject, woman as (hated) object. The fact of the matter is that the bulk of BDSM practices center around female submission, or one partner taking on a “feminine” and submissive role. I’ll admit that there are infinite variations in human sexual desire, and that there might be three people on this planet who practice BDSM in ways that fall outside of that dynamic (though I doubt that), but I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about the vast majority of cases, which is what we’re going to talk about here. From here on out, unless I say otherwise, I’m using the term BDSM to refer to what goes on in the vast majority of cases. So, if you plan to comment, I’ll ask that you keep in mind the fact that you can’t refute an argument that is true in most cases with a single counterexample, even if it is your own personal experience. Your experience matters and will be acknowledged, but not to the erasure of everyone else’s. I don’t want to tell you to closet yourself or to be ashamed of your desires, I want to examine some of the assumptions involved in the BDSM lifestyle. I’ll suffer no accusations otherwise. Be warned.

With that bullshit out of the way, on to the results of my “research”… 

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23 Responses to “BDSM (the sexual equivalent of being into Renaissance faires) Part 1: Some Background and a Few Warnings”

  1. Charlie November 29, 2008 at 12:19 AM #

    First off, I fully agree with you that it’s important to explore the ways in which hetero-patriarchal culture influences sexuality. I’m a sex educator and I see the impact of it all the time. It’s frustrating, but I see the positive effect that I can have when I help people overcome that.

    One thing that I’d point out about the way that you gathered your information is that you only showed that there are more men looking for sub women than women looking for sub men, at least on CL (which is where it sounds like you did your posting). That’s not really a surprise. Dominant women have much less difficulty finding male partners, just as women looking for male sexual partners generally have much less difficulty than men looking for women (if we’re looking at quantity of responses). But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. That just means that you were looking in the wrong place to find them. I’d suggest that a better place to look for numbers that show how many dom men there are compared to dom women would be in some of the social spaces within the BDSM world. I can tell you from personal experience that there are a lot of dominant women in the world.

    It may also be that your post as a sub woman was more convincing than your post as a sub man. It’s usually easier for non-BDSM people to guess what a sub woman would say than a sub man, given that we have many more examples of it in the world. So perhaps the dominant women on CL simply didn’t find your ad compelling. It’s hard to say, since I don’t have them to read. If you’d care to email them to me, feel free.

    Further, your use of the world “explore” is often a signifier of inexperience in the online personals world. My observation is that there are more men looking for women to “teach” than there are women looking for men to “teach.” I see this as somewhat parallel to the fascination that many men have with virginity. You might have gotten a different response if you had posted ads from experienced subs looking for dominants.

    Another factor is that men are consistently more willing to seek sexual partners online than women. That will also skew your results. Of course, there’s an age difference there- younger people are less split by gender when it comes to online dating. But many younger people are looking for something different than you described.

    Yet another one is that there are many differences between people in the BDSM community and those who are not. In my experience, people in the community tend to be more aware of issues of consent, safety, sexism, homophobia and such. That’s often because there are strong community norms that raise the awareness of many (admittedly, not all) people in those spaces. By contrast, people who engage in BDSM activities without that community context tend to have less awareness of these issues. My observation is that people within the BDSM community often look for partners on websites dedicated to the community, such as bondage.com. So by looking on (I assume) CL, you’re getting a look at one slice of BDSM practitioners and missing out on many others.

    I applaud your willingness to do some background research into the BDSM world, despite your clear dislike of it. However, I don’t think that it qualifies you to discuss what the “majority” of practices are. From a methodological perspective, you got at a fairly narrow slice of BDSM practitioners and you might draw different conclusions from examining a wider range. At the very least, I think that it is more authentic to limit your claims since there’s a lot more diversity than you recognize (despite your nod to it).

    I agree with you that individual counterclaims aren’t necessarily a refutation of a general trend. One of the flaws of a lot of writing on sex is that people don’t understand that. But at some point, a researcher needs to acknowledge that there are enough examples to the contrary that sweeping statements are no longer accurate. The question of when that takes place is a source of major debate within all research and I’m certainly not going to be able to answer it here. I simply invite you to either test your own claim and find out how many dominant women there are by widening your search, or accept that as someone who has studied sexuality for almost 20 years, I can speak with more accuracy about what people do.

    The upshot of all of this is that I think that you took some great steps to examine BDSM. I also think that you have some great things to say about social oppression and you bring some clarity to topics that many people struggle with. I really hope that you believe that I mean that. At the same time, I suggest that you try to avoid overstating your arguments, which always detracts from the essential truth of them.

    Many people who engage in BDSM are acting out hetero-patriarchal models of sexuality. And many people engage in BDSM from a more thoughtful perspective. They’re out there, whether you found them or not.

  2. Nine Deuce November 29, 2008 at 12:30 AM #

    Charlie – Not to worry, I won’t be making any absolute claims, nor pretending to be a statistical expert on BDSM. And all of your points about the sample are valid, but the sample isn’t really forming the bulk of what I’m going to do with this series. Unfortunately, I’ll probably do plenty of overstating. It’s my hallmark, isn’t it?

  3. Trinity November 29, 2008 at 4:24 PM #

    What Charlie said — IMX, most dominant women just look for men in actual groups, etc. I’ve never even considered answering a personal ad, myself.

    Also, there’s the commonly-accepted wisdom that there are just plain fewer female tops who are interested in men than the reverse. (I’ve seen research to substantiate this, but I’ve also heard from others that depending on what data is collected, this disparity doesn’t show up.)

    That fewer women (apparently) are tops, I think, can and does have to do with patriarchy. But to me, that shows not that BDSM is inherently patriarchal but rather that patriarchy affects people from all subcultures.

    I’ve known a fair number of submissive women who think that they aren’t or couldn’t be into topping or dominating, who discover that they enjoy doing that too. I think it’s more patriarchal influence making them think topping is “wrong” or “off” for them than taking the roles deeply to heart.

  4. Thene November 29, 2008 at 6:20 PM #

    Here via sm-f. My feeling is that the ‘real world of BDSM’ is the same as the fake world of BDSM in the same way that the real world of vanilla heterosexuality is the same as the fake world of vanilla heterosexuality – the prom dates, the bridal showers, the gold bands and the other eye-wateringly disgusting cultural claptrap is literally real, means a lot to some people who engage in it, and is just so much incidental fluff if you’re talking about what’s possible within a vanilla heterosexual preference.

    I’m curious as to why you decided to do your control test as a submissive guy rather than a dominant woman, btw, given that it’s well known that men are more likely to reply to dating ads than women. Maybe posting four ads would’ve given you a clearer picture? I could understand if you didn’t have the time for that, though!

  5. Nine Deuce November 29, 2008 at 6:23 PM #

    There’s a lot more to come, and the series is not based solely on the personal ads, which I said in this post.

  6. JRN November 29, 2008 at 9:32 PM #

    I must STRENUOUSLY object to the notion that the Smiths are a goth band. Way too arch, not nearly dark enough.

  7. Nine Deuce November 29, 2008 at 10:42 PM #

    JRN – I agree. They’re most definitely not a goth band, but almost every goth I’ve ever known has been a fan.

  8. JRN November 29, 2008 at 11:48 PM #

    Maybe so, but does that mean that goths “should” listen to the Smiths? Who are you to prescribe appropriate goth behavior? I’m really, really angry about this. Er, no, wait–I mean, I’m experiencing a sort of tragic sense of resignation over this.

  9. isme November 30, 2008 at 5:27 AM #

    I’m really, really angry about this. Er, no, wait–I mean, I’m experiencing a sort of tragic sense of resignation over this.

    Lol!

  10. Screaming Lemur November 30, 2008 at 8:00 PM #

    Since this subject is of interest to me (and since I get a lot of what I feel is a “slut-shaming, how-could-you” attitude from a lot of radfem sites), I’m looking forward to what I hope will be a thoughtful, considered discussion of the dynamics of BDSM.
    As Charlie says, I truly believe there’s a big difference in the way this particular kink is practiced by people who’ve thought about it and who’re in a community that is sensitive to nuance, and people who have a “Hot Topic” view on the subject. A lot is very heternormative and patriarchal, and a lot, well, isn’t. I found hir response to be evenhanded and intelligent.
    Obviously, I can’t pretend to be totally neutral on the subject, which is why I’m interested in what you have to say about what you find, 9-2.

  11. Trinity November 30, 2008 at 10:59 PM #

    “I truly believe there’s a big difference in the way this particular kink is practiced by people who’ve thought about it and who’re in a community that is sensitive to nuance, and people who have a “Hot Topic” view on the subject. A lot is very heteronormative and patriarchal, and a lot, well, isn’t.”

    I agree with this, but I get very leery when the heteronormative stuff is presented as “the truth about BDSM.”

    Which I’m not saying 9-2 is doing here, but it looks like it without 4&5 up yet, no idea what they will bring.

    At any rate such is ridiculously common among radical feminists, as is the repeated insistence that female dominants don’t matter to the analysis.

    Which bugs me, as “powerful women don’t exist” and “women never have enough power to matter” don’t strike me as coming from the liberators, if you take my meaning…

  12. Screaming Lemur December 2, 2008 at 12:32 AM #

    I’m not sure there IS a “real truth about BDSM”. I think everyone’s experiences are going to be different, depending on a shit-ton of factors. Yeah, I do believe there’s a lot of heteronormativity going on, because sometimes that’s just what people are used to (a la Dude In Charge) and so that’s what they’re comfortable with. But many people push the envelope, explore, or go into it wanting something different from that. This is a subculture where women can be unapologetic about what they want, sexually. I’ve heard the argument that really, it’s still all about the menz, but I’m not so sure that’s really the case here, although again YMMV widely. I think you have to draw the line between “what I really want” and “what the Patriarchy has brainwashed me to think I want” somewhere.

  13. Trinity December 2, 2008 at 5:45 AM #

    “I think you have to draw the line between “what I really want” and “what the Patriarchy has brainwashed me to think I want” somewhere.”

    Oh, but you’re cheating. If the theory says patriarchy made you do it, that’s that, and you need to “examine” till ya see it!

  14. Maggie Hays December 4, 2008 at 5:47 PM #

    it wasn’t cool, so I expect any of you I happen to run across to buy me at least four beers to repay me for suffering the trauma

    *Hugs* Nine. I can understand your pain.

  15. sonia December 20, 2008 at 6:42 PM #

    “where Marines could call themselves goth and people who couldn’t get enough of Adam Sandler could get into S&M and buy each other leopard-print fur handcuffs as bridal shower gifts.”

    beautiful. :)

  16. Mary January 10, 2009 at 4:03 AM #

    I think you would get a more accurate picture of both men and women who actively practice BDSM and the many activities that fall under that activity umbrella by actually talking to men and women who actively practice various forms of BDSM. Putting an ad on CL is sort of skewing your findings. You could probably post an ad about anything sexually related and come away with 400 creepy responses from old horny men.

    I think referring to BDSM as the sexual equivalent of the ren fair is a little patronizing and sort of saying the opposite of your post. However, I am rather biased as one who has practiced various forms of BDSM since the age of 17. There are so many different reasons people get into this lifestyle. There are the posers and people who just do it because they think it’s going against the norm and they are trying to make some sort of personal statement about society or what have you.

    Are their the creepy lurkers who just want to take advantage of some poor innocent girl? Of course, but there are just as many, if not more, vanilla men who are much of a predator. In fact, and I would love to do official research on this, there are probably fewer “predators” in the BDSM community than outside of it. For the very reasons that Charlie pointed out. There are set rules, guidelines, and expectations for those who want to be members of the BDSM community. You must be Safe, Sane, and consensual. Break any of those rules and you are ostracized for life.

    BDSM is hard to wrap your head around even when you are an active practitioner. You are often asking yourself why you are the way you are, what happened while you were growing up to make you the way you are? I think it’s even harder for vanillas because they don’t have that piece inside them that calls to them or drives them to be a part of that D/s dynamic.

  17. Barry January 11, 2009 at 3:40 AM #

    Hello.

    What am I supposed to do when a girl I like *wants* me to hurt her and degrade her during sex?

    I don’t want to hurt anyone I like, but this keeps happening to me. And they always spring it on me after we’ve become intimate.

    I don’t want to seem weak or anything, but you know. I’d like to hear your opinion on this.

  18. Saret February 13, 2009 at 10:43 PM #

    “… the point here is that mixing sex with power is a problem, and that in the vast, large, wide, ample, immense, huge majority of cases, men wield the power and exercise it on women. ”

    Ah, but in examining sexuality you forget a key and crucial point: sexuality is not rational.

    Common sexual fantasies are shaped by taboos and cultural mores, not what people feel they “should” be aroused by, by any set of standards.

    The things that people feel ashamed by, or are emotionally charged by – in this case, the wielding of power or the giving up of power – are often what they end up masturbating to.

    • Nine Deuce February 13, 2009 at 10:46 PM #

      That may be how it works in this society, but that isn’t how it has to be. In societies where sex isn’t considered shameful (read: non-monotheistic societies), people don’t associate sex with guilt or hostility. That ought to be the goal.

  19. Jon February 25, 2009 at 6:55 AM #

    I have never read this blog before, I generally avoid all blogs like the plague, but my girlfriend sent me to this particular set of entries, and I decided to leave a post of each page for the series.
    I am going to be right upfront. I am a lifestyle male dominant and have been for going on 9 years now (I am 26 as of posting this). In that time, I have made a lot of friends in the lifestyle and I wanted to start by talking about your method of data collecting, much as Charlie did.
    Firstly, most of the people who actually are in the scene do Very Little online dating. Most of the people who do, are posers, people who are all into the image of S&M with very little follow through. What you got most likely was people who dig the fantasy of having a girl to satisfy their every whim without the respect.
    And yes, I just used the word respect when it comes to S&M. (Also, you show a lack of respect likening S&M to Renn Faire enthusiasts. Was it your intent to ostracize two social groups at once?) Respect is the key to an S&M relationship at all times. Without it, it’s an abusive relationship and little more. I have had respect to every play partner I have ever had.
    Your lack of responses on the male ad was more then likely because Female Doms usually have their pick of the litter. They don’t have to look to hard for people that meet their needs and in fact are usually sought after.
    Also, like all things on the internet, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. People are more at ease online, they feel they can say and express things they wouldn’t in a public forum because there is no fear of repercussion.
    If you went to a meeting of lifestyle folk, you would have met people like me. I am mild mannered, pleasant, and downright nice. I am respectful, and never make assumptions. I am up front about my interests and if they are not interested, then I am willing to put S&M aside to be with someone I care about. I am not a predator, and a lot of people are surprised when they learn of my interests. I don’t seem the type and if you met me face to face tomorrow, you would never know.
    As for assumptions that I am perverted because of my interests, I have to disagree. I’m just as sexually interested as anyone else in the world, I just express it differently then most. Now, you may say that I am a Patriarchal Pervert just by admitting I enjoy sex and think about it, I think that is more the nature of Humanity. We all like sex and think about it. It’s just Human nature, and we all have different tastes.
    If you like being on top, does that make you a pervert? Does that mean you are enacting some rite of female supremacy? If you enjoy sex ‘doggy’ style, are you regressing sex to it’s primitive bestial levels? If you have sex in the missionary position is the man forcing you into the submissive position of a relationship? It’s a different strokes for different folks issue.
    Well I am done with this post I think. I am gonna read the next page and try to write a shorter response.

  20. lizor April 8, 2012 at 5:38 PM #

    I just saw this Ted talk which offers a witty perspective on the ubiquity of Sado-masochism. And it’s entertaining. I wanted to share it with ND and the regulars here so I figured Part 1 of this series may be an appropriate place.

    Cheers folks!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. bdsm and feminism « Devastating Yet Inconsequential - December 4, 2008

    […] Nine Deuce over at Rage Against the Manchine is writing a series on bdsm, which starts with this post.  I seriously do not recommend reading it if you are not at least familiar with radical feminist […]

  2. how bdsm is like renaissance faires « Devastating Yet Inconsequential - March 29, 2009

    […] No Comments I really thought Nine Deuce was going to get around to answering the question of how BDSM is like Renaissance faires, but she never did (at least that I saw).  And it’s a shame, because even though I initially […]

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