Not as transgressive as you think

There’s a fascinating article in today’s Salon Magazine about the new book by anthropologist Margot Weiss: “Techniques of Pleasure.” It’s an insightful look at the BDSM scene in San Francisco, and how in her perception, the scene has lost (or perhaps never had) the aura of being an edgy, taboo-breaking culture.

From the article BDSM: It’s not as transgressive as you think:

“The fantasy of the scene as a safe space of private desire justifies and reinforces certain social inequalities,” she argues. The truth, she says, is that S/M “depends for its erotic power on precisely these real-world relations, within which it is given form and content.”

This is something that I rarely see discussed anymore. Is the BDSM scene simply just one more way that “privileged” people play? Perhaps. Weiss states:

“On the one hand, SM is figured as outlaw: as transgressive of normative sexual values,” Weiss writes. “On the other hand, SM is dependent on social norms: practitioners draw on social hierarchies to produce SM scenes.” The mostly-white, mostly-middle-class community is itself an example of real-world social inequality: ”These [sexual] experiments are more possible and more accessible to those with class, race and gender privilege: heterosexual men playing with sexism, white bodies at a charity slave auction, professional information technology (IT) workers with several rooms filled with custom-made bondage toys.”

And speaking of toys:

Not everyone in the S/M scene can afford to buy all this stuff. In the same way that whiteness is normative, it’s in the center, there is this normative professional-class person who has the money and leisure time to devote to S/M practice, and that is the ideal for consumer capitalism.

S/M is not alone in this. This is just a way that communities based around sexualities work in the U.S. today. But S/M is also a really great example of this, and you can see what that does to the community. People have debates about toys: Are they destroying social connections, did it used to be more authentic? And how now you can just buy your S/M identity, and that creates a lot of anxiety for people.

Much more at the Salon article, and for those interested, here’s a link to the book “Techniques of Pleasure.”

A quick synopsis:

[Weiss] describes a scene devoted to a form of erotic play organized around technique, rules and regulations, consumerism, and self-mastery. Challenging the notion that SM is inherently transgressive, Weiss links the development of commodity-oriented sexual communities and the expanding market for sex toys to the eroticization of gendered, racialized, and national inequalities. She analyzes the politics of BDSM’s spectacular performances, including those that dramatize heterosexual male dominance, slave auctions, and US imperialism, and contends that the SM scene is not a “safe space” separate from real-world inequality. It depends, like all sexual desire, on social hierarchies.

And if you stop by the Salon article, take some time to read the lengthy list of comments.

~ by Tom Allen on January 12, 2012.

42 Responses to “Not as transgressive as you think”

  1. This stuff is why I couldn’t ever bring myself to get any closer than the online fringes of the BDSM “community”. I’ve got stray bullets to worry about walking around my neighborhood at night; I don’t need to be put-off by my own sex life, which is supposed to be an escape.

    • I think that this may tie into some of the frustration I’ve seen voiced lately about the social norms in the scene groups, such as the perceived prejudice against male submissives, and about gay men.

      I have, though, often wondered what would happen to BDSM if it became more “mainstream,” that is, if it were portrayed more positively in the media (as opposed to being done for laughs or cheap titillation). Would it lose the “edginess” and attract fewer interested people?

  2. Over on the article someone calling themselves The Silent 1 said this” “Personally, when I look at the media, women are the ones portrayed with the sexual power. They are positioned as the “gate-keepers” of sex and my generation in particular grew up in the era of “girl power”. Growing up I always noticed how in elementary school the teachers weren’t shy about showing how they favored the girls ( the book the war against boys captures this perfectly) and in general from school and the media I always got the sense that women were the “better sex”. I’ve often wondered how this influenced my own sexual fantasies.”

    Which is the type of thought that I’ve always had flitting about the edge of my mind whenever gender inequality comes up in discussion.

    Anyway, the article as a whole sounds like Weiss was looking for privileged white people playing at their exclusionary kinky games, and was not planning of giving more than a brief mention to anything that disagreed with her thesis.

    And furthermore, by only looking at munches and play parties, is she just ignoring any BDSM practitioners outside the scene? that seems like studying people mating habits by only looking at casual hookups.

    • Several people noted that she chose a scene that was probably (ahem) dominated by middle-class Silicon Vally geeks. It would be interesting to see a comparison between culture in San Francisco and NYC, or Chicago or Boston. Better, with the scene in the smaller cities and towns around the US – you know, where the rest of us live.

  3. I think a book (and article) such as the above are always important to wake people up and start dialogue. That being said, as a priveledged white woman, I do not look for my BDSM identity as a way to show the transgressive nature of my sexuality. It is part of who I am and I do not want to feel guilt over my identity because it possibly fits into the mainstream cultural hiearchies. Does it mean they should not be questioned? No. But I agree that there is a wide spectrum of experiences of the people within this label and there is a danger of generalizing and oversimplifying. Even though I do not walk around with bullets buzzing over my head, I will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I am not in a competition with others who suffer in this world for who has the legitimate right to their experience and identity in the world. It is my responsibility to be a thinking, eyes wide open individual, but I am first and foremost myself. It may be an obligation to fight for social justice, but not at the expense of my soul.

  4. A woman with her nose firmly inserted in her own navel.

    It’s a sexual counter culture. Meaning normal society considers it sexually fringe.

    Wether it’s consumerised does not change that. Nor the fact that it may be more white and middle class than the society average.

    Is gangsta culture any less counter for the fact that mainstream music glorifies it? Or drug culture mainstream because if it were it legalised shops would spring up to cater for it? No! Society currently views certain practices as fringe, often with negative feeling. That’s what defines it as non-mainstream.

  5. Hi Tom,

    I think that broad generalizations about BDSM are bound to be inaccurate and misleading. Though Em and I have flirted with “the scene” for many years now we have tended to avoid club affiliation partly because we just weren’t in situations where that was feasible but mostly because we didn’t like the inevitable politics of organizational membership.

    Margot Weiss obviously imported a ton of preconceived bias to her task and apparently reduced BDSM to those aspects of it that reinforced her premises. I agree somewhat that BDSM has become commoditized. But there’s so much that can be done with a few simple items purchased from one’s local hardware store (or, in many instances, with items readily available at home) that I find her assertion seriously flawed.

    I think that the roots of contemporary BDSM in the gay and lesbian community were unassailably taboo breaking. Perhaps Ms. Weiss is too young to recall how repressive American society used to be. BDSM’s move to a more accepted centrist position in our society attests to a far reaching and hard won shift in social mores in the post WWII era, a period that is now essentially over. Her appropriation of BDSM and her attempt to deconstruct, trivialize, and objectify it is in itself an exercise in the very elitism she decries.

    Her overemphasis of the public expression of BDSM misses the whole intent of alternative sexuality as a modality for people in relationships to explore their kinks without being overly judgmental. To me it’s all about learning to enjoy who we are as individuals, couples, etc. without crippling ourselves with guilt. When I’m tied to our bed and Em is caning my ass and telling me what a worthless slave I am, I don’t need the ghost of my momma, in the guise of an uptight anthropologist, telling me that I ought be ashamed of myself.

    Best,

    scott
    Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

  6. Holy shit, Tom!

    The comments on this post to date are the most disappointing and, frankly, largest pile of exactly the kind of privilege- and responsibility-denying bullshit that I’ve read about this, particularly MyKey’s ad-hominem ass hattery. And it’s no surprise to me that Peroxide’s ignorance is showing; Weiss’s scope was expressly defined as the public BDSM community, so his argument is not just derailing, it’s just fucking stupid.

    Like I said on Twitter, if you’re surprised at any of this, you are sexist, racist, and/or classist, and it’s no wonder you do BDSM as an “escape.” It’s no wonder these commenters are jolted into ridiculous, defensive irrationality; THEY’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM. I’ll make no bones about making sure there are not going to be safe spaces for such behavior—those attitudes have got to end, and I’m going to end them one way or another. That’s a promise and a threat.

    I’m incredibly disappointed in your blog readers, Tom. I’ll stick to the top half of your blog from now on. Disgusting.

  7. maymay,

    You have a right to your opinion and, in case you overlooked it, so do others. I have been active in kink for many years and feel strongly that even in its public expression (which I usually find disappointing and often silly) there is plenty of room to disagree with Margot Weiss’s assessments. There was a time in America when there was no public play and a person seeking to explore their sexual longings would put themselves at genuine risk to fulfill them. The fact that public play today may not be transgressive is a testament to how our culture has changed and that change was fought for by brave souls who are mostly gone now. Their success, which we benefit from today, could vanish in a millisecond. You can still, if outed, lose your job or your family for participation in alternative sexuality.

    There was no need for personal attacks here when a measured rebuttal by you would have been more than sufficient. But feel free to continue your rants and invective. I’ve never heard of you and have managed to get along just fine with that.

    Best,

    scott
    Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

    • Hey Scott,

      There was no need for personal attacks here when a measured rebuttal by you would have been more than sufficient.

      screw you and your derailing bullshit.

      I’ve never heard of you and have managed to get along just fine with that.

      Obviously, it’s because you’ve never heard of me that informs why you’ve never heard me give “a measured rebuttal.” You didn’t bother to consider that possibility, though, did you?

      So start by following some of the links I left in my previous comment (duh). And then, when you’ve exhausted yourself reading through those and what they link to, here are some more for you to start at:

      The BDSM Scene is a recreation of “Pontus” – MaleSubmissionArt.com
      Domism: Role Essentialism and Sexism Intersectionality in the BDSM Scene
      Interview with Staci Newmahr, author of Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy

      And also, next time you make a fool of yourself, don’t expect someone to take the time to link you to places where you can educate yourself, far less to be nice about it. I mean really, has anyone who commented on this post so far even read Weiss’s book (or at least any of her other published articles)? My own review copy hasn’t arrived yet. And really, Scott, your questioning of Weiss’s age (“perhaps she’s too young to recall how repressive American society used to be”) is bordering on blatant sexism and ageism, since it’s a direct implication that she doesn’t know her history. If you’d actually read her work you’d know better than this, which doesn’t even get to the point that the whole “but it’s better now than it used to be!” argument being used an excuse to dismiss today’s oppressive behavior should make any ethical person want to vomit all over you, and I sincerely hope they do. It’s your job to educate yourself about derailing and oppressive behavior and then change it. Capisce?

      That goes double for any commenters who’ve read this far and still have the knee-jerk urge to say something dismissive of the points Weiss has been raising.

  8. Hi maymay,

    I rest my case. I’ve tried to be civil.

    Best,

    scott
    Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

    • I rest my case. I’ve tried to be civil.

      Civility is no measure of veracity, Scott. (Again, duh.)

      • No, but *not* being civil often turns off people who otherwise might have at least listened to one’s argument.

        May, I appreciate your sense of social justice, but I think that you’re barking up an inappropriate tree. While I’m also surprised at the lack of discussion on this post, I think it’s because most of my readers simply aren’t active in the public scenes, and either don’t have an opinion, or that their own opinion is already poorly colored, and don’t care to comment. That, and the Salon article only offered a tiny glimpse of Weiss’ ideas. I’ve run across some of her stuff in the past, and I remember her as being a good writer. However, I think it’s a mistake to expect people with no connection to the public scene to simply jump into her book.

        The comments on the Salon article were more numerous, but with a few exceptions, not especially helpful, except maybe in the sense that none of them claimed that Weiss was wrong – merely too narrow in focus.

        There is a long-standing paradox as to public scenes (and this applies to the internet groups, as well): People who seem to think that their sexuality should be “okay” often develop their little cliques, with their own hierarchy and rules. From a sociological perspective, this is pretty common. From a perspective of diversity and inclusivity, it’s a nightmare. I think that most intelligent people eventually recognize this *when it’s pointed out to them* and will generally work toward more equality. Unfortunately, it’s often a slow process.

        • No, but *not* being civil often turns off people who otherwise might have at least listened to one’s argument.

          Yeah, Tom, do you think I don’t know that? I’m not being uncivil because I haven’t considered pros and cons, or other alternatives, I’m being uncivil precisely because I have thought this through. And if you want to talk about that with me, that’s great, but don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m not acting with intention.

          May, I appreciate your sense of social justice, but I think that you’re barking up an inappropriate tree.

          I disagree. I think you think I’m barking at Scott. I’m not—Scott’s participation in this conversation is just a stand-in for one of a billion interchangeable cogs in a machine that has no use other than to be a shining example of what I intend to help destroy. I’m barking at Scott loud enough so everyone else can’t possibly overlook the barking.

          People who seem to think that their sexuality should be “okay” often develop their little cliques, with their own hierarchy and rules. From a sociological perspective, this is pretty common. From a perspective of diversity and inclusivity, it’s a nightmare. I think that most intelligent people eventually recognize this *when it’s pointed out to them* and will generally work toward more equality. Unfortunately, it’s often a slow process.

          You and I clearly have different ways of “pointing things out.” I support your methods even if they are not mine, and I’d encourage you to consider the power in that diversity.

        • No, I didn’t think you were barking at Scott, I thought you were disappointed at the response to the article. Personally, I thought it would generate a little more discussion, but again, I think that most of my readers are not involved with the public scene, and so don’t care enough to give it much thought. That doesn’t make them dull, or ignorant, or racist/sexist/agist. It simply makes them people with other agendas and perspectives than you. Or I. Or Weiss.

  9. ” I think you think I’m barking at Scott. I’m not—Scott’s participation in this conversation is just a stand-in for one of a billion interchangeable cogs in a machine that has no use other than to be a shining example of what I intend to help destroy.”

    maymay,

    You’re not simply rude and abrasive, you’re delusional. My advice is to seek counseling. Believe me, you need it.

    Sorry, Tom. I didn’t mean to stir up such a hornet’s nest.

    Best,

    scott
    Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

  10. No, I didn’t think you were barking at Scott, I thought you were disappointed at the response to the article.

    You’re right, Tom, I was disappointed. Can’t say I’m terribly surprised, but disappointed’s accurate. I like you a lot and so maybe my hopes that your blog commenters were generally more aware of these issues were too high.

    Thanks for disabusing me of that notion and realigning my expectations of your blog’s audience with the reality that your readers are generally no better than any other chastity-themed blog. I guess that makes me disappointed in you, too, now that I think about it, and that feels bad.

    most of my readers are not involved with the public scene, and so don’t care enough to give it much thought. That doesn’t make them dull, or ignorant, or racist/sexist/agist.

    Actually, not being directly involved in something and thus not caring enough to give it much thought is the definition of being ignorant of said thing. Being ignorant about something and then spouting off bullshit remarks about it is, similarly, part of the definition of racist or sexist or ageist behavior. While one can certainly say something racist or sexist or ageist and not be racist or sexist or ageist, whether Scott or any of these other commenters are racist or sexist or ageist is not the point. The point is that what they have said in this thread is. Go ahead, re-read this thread, find out if you can spot the difference.

    Scott’s further derailing word-vomit continues to be a wonderful case-in-point. He’s practically quoting from “Derailing For Dummies” at this point. Check it out. This was Scott:

    maymay, You’re not simply rude and abrasive, you’re delusional. My advice is to seek counseling. Believe me, you need it.

    And here’s the playbook he’s unknowingly (i.e., ignorantly) reading from:

    You really want to ignore any claims the Marginalised Person™ may make about having done thorough research, deconstructing and unpacking of these issues. You also really want to deny their autonomy. There are few things so infuriating as infantilising an adult and telling them they’re delusional about their own reality. But they need to understand that, no matter what, you know better.

    Especially as he seems uninterested in showing that he’s ever read Weiss’ work, his ignorance is so blatantly obvious that if you can’t grok it, we’re done here.

    As for this “perspective,” Tom:

    It simply makes them people with other agendas and perspectives than you.

    In other words: Intent, it’s fucking magic, isn’t it?

    Yeah, that’s pretty much straight-up bullshit, too.

    • Do I still have a chastity-themed blog? Oh, bloody hell!

      I’m not even sure where to go from here, because I think you misunderstood what I was trying to communicate in my previous comment, and I don’t feel like picking nits with you. So, let’s try moving into something more productive.

      The Salon article didn’t touch much on the consumerist aspect, but I think it figures rather highly.

      In the article, Weiss tries to make the point that the BDSM scene (at least in the SF Bay area that she studied) has lost the edginess (if it, indeed, ever had it) by the infusion of white, middle-class scene people who are able to throw money at their hobbies – in essence, buying their chops instead of earning them.

      This kind of reminds me of the older motorcyclists that I knew in the 70s and 80s who complained that the yuppies were buying new, tricked-out Harleys, and were buying their leathers instead of earning them. The difference that I see is that Tim Allen and John Travolta probably won’t make a BDSM-themed movie about guys having a midlife crisis. A saving grace, if you ask me.

      The people who run the scene clubs don’t have a lot of motivation to change things because if the elitist, money-spending sceners are uncomfortable, then they might go elsewhere, and all of that cool dungeon equipment and play space will sit unused and empty, and more importantly, won’t put any money into the club owner’s pockets. And, like the owners of trendy restaurants and boutiques know, styles and tastes can change at any time, so it’s less important to offer diversity, and more important to keep the people coming in the door, and to buy the overpriced equipment.

      I suspect that if you’re looking to make a difference, then you’ve got to approach things the way that generally works with other aspects of culture: convince people – the regular scene goers – that the things that you would like to see can be status enhancing and even trendier than what they already have.

      • Do I still have a chastity-themed blog?

        I think so, Tom. It’s certainly what you’re most known for, in any event, and deservedly so, I might add.

        I think you misunderstood what I was trying to communicate in my previous comment, and I don’t feel like picking nits with you. So, let’s try moving into something more productive.

        Fair enough. I’m ready to hear a clarification whenever you’re ready to offer one, if you want to. FWIW, this is why I (still) like you.

        The Salon article didn’t touch much on the consumerist aspect, but I think it figures rather highly.

        I think that’s because much of Weiss’s work unpacks the effects of late-capitalist consumerism on BDSM sexuality; that’s among her work’s main themes. One of her articles I linked to earlier was expressly about this. In it, she writes that marketers have tapped into the allure and exoticism of SM sexuality to sell an ever-widening array of products, and this critique is, of course, relevant to most if not all subcultures that exist in societies employing late-capitalist economic models—most of the world, in other words.

        I think the tech industry is arguably one of the most salient and illustrative examples of this. Its ever-increasing speed of innovation is a natural companion to the capitalistic impetus behind planned obsolescence.

        The important take-away seems to me to be that mainstays of capitalistic practice have obvious parallels to The Scene, precisely because of the public BDSM Scene’s emphasis on things like “toys” and physical skill based classes. On that note, Weiss elaborates in her 2006 article, Working at Play. There, she writes:

        As BDSM has become more mainstream, more organizationally focussed and more middle-class, practitioners work on their SM in self-conscious ways, mobilizing American discourses of self-improvement, actualization and education.

        […]

        Thus, as I have been describing, the time, money and energy practitioners spend on their SM practice is a form of sociality. Combining consumption, community and pleasure, contemporary BDSM sexualities are a form of working at play[…].

        What’s left unsaid in this excerpt but that the Salon.com article touches on is the way such socioeconomic divides segment the population; those who can and those who can not access such social work-play. That’s the very definition of classism and The BDSM Scene doesn’t just mirror that behavior, it actually intentionally amplifies that very trait in order to function as it desires—and that’s classist.

        I find Weiss’s critique even deeper than this, though, because that same blockading of access to (“alternative,” or “BDSM”) sexuality helps maintain the oppressive “man box” for men of color. The constant barrage of cultural obstacles barricading a self-actualized expression of one’s sexuality is doubly true and—speaking as a white submissive man—I suspect unfathomably more painful for submissive men of color. From this angle, the support structures for both racism and sexism can be seen more clearly: classism and specifically capitalism doesn’t just inform, but actually intentionally supports both racism and sexism. As you, yourself, said:

        The people who run the scene clubs don’t have a lot of motivation to change things because if the elitist, money-spending sceners are uncomfortable, then they might go elsewhere, and all of that cool dungeon equipment and play space will sit unused and empty, and more importantly, won’t put any money into the club owner’s pockets.

        It is precisely this kyriarchical structure that Weiss pinpoints when she critiques the whiteness of the Scene. That’s why it’s no surprise that self-identified “privileged white women” would not enjoy being reminded of their unflattering participation in such an oppressive system. In fact, at the party I was at last weekend, I piped up about this fact and one white woman plainly said, “Yeah…I’ve been trying not to think about all that stuff this weekend.” So I was honest with her when I replied, “I like to make it difficult for people to forget about all that.”

        Sometimes that means I make it difficult for people to uncritically enjoy the sex they have. I am more than okay with that. It is, in fact, an integral piece of my goal. Or, in my own “crass” language, many of these people are Puny Kings of their own Petty Hills; they behave like privileged shits.

        Moreover, the monetary expense required to participate in the (semi-)public BDSM Scene in a way that is legitimized by The Scene’s “Powers That Be” is, as mentioned, one reason why it remains overwhelmingly white, but also a reason why The Scene remains overwhelmingly adultist. For more about that, I recommend reading Tynan Fox’s poignant piece at Leatherati.com called The Price of Admission.

        I suspect that if you’re looking to make a difference, then you’ve got to approach things the way that generally works with other aspects of culture: convince people – the regular scene goers – that the things that you would like to see can be status enhancing and even trendier than what they already have.

        This is where I think we fundamentally disagree, Tom. And that’s fine.

        Your line of thinking seems to be that providing avenues of access to the privileges maintained by the systems of power described above is a way to “make a difference.” While making a difference is a noble goal, and one I share, accessing privileges through the system that blockades access to marginalized groups sounds a lot like the same old, tired liberal arguments that give us sweatshop-produced rainbow flags. You are, in other words, encouraging people to participate in behavior that is fundamentally callous towards the already-most-marginalized groups of people, rather than encouraging them to do the one thing every one of us could do right now to have an unstoppable power: refuse to participate.

        And this is why I am a liberationist, and you seem to be an assimilationist. We don’t have to agree, but I need to understand your position (and I feel I do) and you need to examine your priorities (and I trust you will, if you’re not already doing so).

        Thanks again for the opportunity to return to actually discussing the issues. Hopefully this thread has raised the signal to noise ratio about the Salon article.

        Now, others can link to this thread, or to my own cross-post about it, when they see people saying stupid shit like that in MyKey’s, Peroxide’s, and Scott’s comments about Margot Weiss’s valuable contributions to this debate.

  11. I’m writing a much longer discussion at my own blog. For now, let me refer people to Margot Weiss’s author’s webpage at Wesleyan University (http://works.bepress.com/mdweiss/). She is not ignorant about BDSM and she is not naive about what is and isn’t allowed in society – she could probably school each and every one of us on aspects of that.

    Much of the criticism seems to revolve around the lack of understanding of what a cultural anthropology or sociology study is and how it is conducted. That’s unfortunate. There also seems to be some who are uncomfortable with the idea that their position in society, and in BDSM, is privileged. That’s unfortunate, as well.

    I don’t take part in any “scene.” My Mistress and I are fairly private people. But we are privileged to be private because others fought (and continue to fight) battles so we don’t have to. It shouldn’t make anyone feel guilty or diminished in any way to understand this. Unfortunately, it seems that it does.

  12. Sheesh, I didn’t mean to hit a nerve. Pardon my ignorance. (sincerely)

    I read the article and it felt to me like Weiss, who I’d never heard of before, came looking for a fight which does little to endear her to me.

    In fact it made me defensive, because I see that people have a tendency to conflate the semi-public BDSM scene and privately held desires for the sharper pleasures in life.

    None of the mentioned isms have anything to do with my private fantasies, and the supposition that they might, makes me a bit snippy.

    • Sheesh, I didn’t mean to hit a nerve. Pardon my ignorance. (sincerely)

      Well, at least you’re almost getting it:

      None of the mentioned isms have anything to do with my private fantasies, and the supposition that they might, makes me a bit snippy.

      For the record, it is a fact that none of your private fantasies exist in a vacuum somehow magically divorced from the mentioned isms, so your statement that the two are unrelated is ridiculous and stupid and is itself further proof of your ignorance.

      • May, while I understand the general concept of “angry activism,” I fail to see how using such loaded words here and now, and in a manner that would be conceived as personally insulting, moves any of us closer to what I imagine we all want. Maybe you could explain to me what you hope to gain by this? Because to me, it just seems like it’s wasting energy that could be better used in some other way.

        • If you want me to be less brash or to come across as less personally insulting to you or your commenters when leaving comments on your website, Tom, say so. No need to hide behind requests for clarification, don’t temper your language with qualifiers, and don’t think others can’t see through these things. In other words, don’t let diplomacy get in the way. It doesn’t always work—sometimes you’ve got to break some windows, sometimes you’ve got to bash back—and I’m trying to make sure you, and everyone else reading, finally gets that.

          Because, obviously, I’m ready to break a lot of windows, and I’m done pulling my punches. Peroxide’s statement was stupid and did showcase ignorance and I’m over letting anything less than full knowledge pass as appropriate recompense when I commit to a thread like this one.

        • I would like to understand and care about these issues. Really, I would. However, part of my brain just wants to say, “fuck it, it’s not your problem,” and when ever you get abrasive May, dude, that voice gets a little louder.

          I like what you’re doing, I think there are many things that we would agree on off the bat, and there are probably quite a few things that you could convince me of. But, I can’t help but wonder how many allies to your cause you’ve turned away.

          Here’s my email, if you’d like to discuss this privily, and send me a copy of “I to kink…” since the link isn’t working for me I would be obliged.

          captnperoxide@gmail.com

        • maymay,

          I really didn’t want to get sucked back into this but it appears that you want to create some sort of change in “the scene.” In order to do that you need to change the way scene people think and feel. You have had an opportunity here which you have nearly squandered.

          Why do you think that calling people names is advantageous to your cause? Even if you know something that others don’t, that doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of understanding what you know. How does it help you or your cause to make enemies so unnecessarily? You don’t know us and, just as Peroxide pointed out, if you used a minimum of diplomacy you might have won us over without any struggle at all. As it stands, by your frontal assault, you’ve not only pushed us away from you but disinclined us to focus on your cause.

          Diplomacy: “Skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility.”

          You might consider it. When it works, it keeps us from killing each other.”

          Best,

          scott
          Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

        • You don’t know us and, just as Peroxide pointed out, if you used a minimum of diplomacy you might have won us over without any struggle at all.

          You’re missing the point (again), Scott. I don’t want to “win you over” at all. I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if you disappeared forever or got hit by a bus tomorrow. Let me make this perfectly clear: I don’t give a shit about you and your presumption that I would, or even that I should, and your continued totally fucking privileged bullshit berating hostile interactions is precisely why I find your behavior not merely personally revolting, but systemically oppressive. Can you understand that or do you need me to spell it out more succinctly for you?

          Now, since I’ve made that as clear as I can possibly make it, I intend to avoid interacting with you directly, so you’ll not get another direct response from me. Period.

          Note: This comment was sent in on Saturday, but sat in Moderation until I just discovered it

  13. There’s a lot that I just don’t recognise about Weiss’ characterisation, but then, she’s talking about a scene that’s several thousand miles from where I live (literally, in a different continent) so I don’t know how much it is “about me”.

    Mainly, though, I don’t recognise the characterisation of SM as seeing itself as transgressive or rebellious: I feel that that is a view imposed from outside. I am who I am, it’s not about being “transgressive” or “rebellious”; it’s about being me, and when I attend munches and the one time I’ve attended a fetish club, it was about being around people like me, not about transgression.

    To some degree, I think there is a class element – for me, on a low income, although I have been able to acquire home equipment relatively cheaply (or, in many cases, make rather than buy functional versions of what I need), in order to participate in the public scene carries other costs that I cannot carry so easily, particularly in terms of transport to venues, and for fetish clubs, there is usually a dress code that incorporates expensive fetish gear in some form or another (although I have noted that some will allow “all in black clothes” to pass). Because I have a few of my crossdressing clothes bought cheaply, I was able make something “fetish”-y out of that to gain admittance, but for a long time the cost of something to wear was a big barrier, and that’s one reason why I haven’t participated much in the public scene.

    But to me, the “scene” is incidental: it’s like saying “vanilla het sex is commercialised because look: nightclubs and Ann Summers and his’n’hers and ‘romantic weekend breaks’ holiday packages and subscription dating websites etc”. People seem to manage to do het vanillaness okay without those expensive things, and people seem to do BDSM okay without the expensive stuff that surrounds it. Capitalism being what it is – a necessarily voracious economic system that continually needs new markets to exploit – businesses naturally seek to find ways to make money out of peoples’ sexuality and sexual expression. In the communities of which I am a member (largely peripherally, I admit) there seems to be a strong interest in people who are able to “DIY” their gear (as I do), and status doesn’t seem to come from having bought stuff (although having stuff to use helps to attract playmates, just as the kid with the trampoline or the swimming pool would attract the most friends).

    My general feeling is that class, race and sexism exist in BDSM, and in the public scene particularly, in much the same ways that they exist in mainstream society, because it’s the same privileged people in both, shaping what privilege looks like in both. It’s a mistake to see this as saying “BDSM has these problems and therefore should be stopped” – that’s like saying, “society has these problems, therefore there should be no people.” But the same changes that are needed in society are also needed in BDSM. Paradoxically, it may be that because we have some of the language that could be used for this change, that we are more resistant to making actual changes (the language makes us feel we’re already there when we aren’t yet).

    From what I’ve seen of people commenting on Weiss’ work, I feel as though for all she has clearly spent a lot of time studying BDSM, she still comes across to me as an outsider, someone who knows a lot about it, but doesn’t really “get” it – the characterisation of “transgressive, but not really” seems to be that kind of a thing, and it produces an unfortunate effect of appearing to blame people for not living up to something that actually, many of them never really promised to live up to in the first place.

    • That’s a great comment, Snowdrop Explodes. I have little to add, except that this…

      My general feeling is that class, race and sexism exist in BDSM, and in the public scene particularly, in much the same ways that they exist in mainstream society, because it’s the same privileged people in both, shaping what privilege looks like in both. It’s a mistake to see this as saying “BDSM has these problems and therefore should be stopped” – that’s like saying, “society has these problems, therefore there should be no people.” But the same changes that are needed in society are also needed in BDSM.

      …is precisely what I think Weiss is getting at. Of course, we should probably just ask her, which I will try to remember to do next time she’s on Kink On Tap. (The reason I’m being sent a review copy of her book is so that I can prepare for an interview we’ve already planned—and I’m really excited about that eventually happening!)

      Also, this…

      Paradoxically, it may be that because we have some of the language that could be used for this change, that we are more resistant to making actual changes (the language makes us feel we’re already there when we aren’t yet).

      …is precisely what I’ve been saying in my comments about The Scene for, gosh, a few years now.

      People in The Scene generally don’t take well to being told, “Oh honey, you think you’re so much better than you are,” and it hurts more the more undeniable and truthful that statement really is. Haven’t we all had that experience and can’t we all recall how much it stings? I sure as fuck can, but it’s no longer something I regret happening.

      Finally, when you say:

      I feel as though for all she has clearly spent a lot of time studying BDSM, she still comes across to me as an outsider, someone who knows a lot about it, but doesn’t really “get” it – the characterisation of “transgressive, but not really” seems to be that kind of a thing[…].

      I’m almost certain your local Scene and your own, as you stated, “peripheral” involvement with the “public” Scene has influenced your view of this, because yours is in no way the experience I’ve had in New York City, San Francisco, or Sydney. It’s not the experience I’ve often had in Boston, nor Portland, nor is it the attitude I keep reading about getting repeated over and over again by the One True Way, self-righteous bullshiteers that sweep through FetLife or the public blogosphere.

      And while, obviously, my own experiences have influenced my perceptions, too, that truth does not account for the inconsistency in your argument regarding why my perception—who I dare say no one from within “The Scene” would call “an outsider’s perspective”—seems by your standards so well-aligned with someone like Weiss’s, who I understand you perceive as an outsider, now does it?

      • Thank you both for articulating what I feel like I did a fairly poor job of articulating in an email to maymay yesterday.

        Snowdropexplodes, I too attend the parties I do attend (I rarely go to clubs, for a lot of the reasons being discussed here) to be around “my people,” not necessarily to be transgressive or rebellious. (Although it does tend to be a safe space for me to explore new sexual territory.) I long ago learned that just because people were kinky, however, didn’t mean I had a damn thing in common with them. The specific scene I tend to travel in, I do so because I feel commonalities with the people there on various levels.

        And this, of course, is where some of the problems arise. Private parties may have less of the commercialized bullshit than club scenes, but they probably have even more of the cliqueishness and tendency to monoculture, because everyone who gets in has been invited by someone else, and it’s concentric circles outward of largely the same types of people. This has been slowly changing in the Boston scene, largely due to the efforts of a dear friend of mine having long talks with the hosts about the party needing to become more inclusive and less straight. It’s a long slow process, though, and the questions of how to make it more racially diverse are more complicated.

        And while I feel comfortable and happy in that crowd, it’s clear that maymay and, by deduction, other people, do not. I agree that the political problems that exist in “the scene” are the same problems that exist in the larger culture, and per an excellent (but sadly as-yet unpublished) essay I read yesterday, the BDSM community is very likely not going to be the place where these intersections of racism, violence, sexism and classism are going to be dismantled.

        But I do think that we can at least work toward greater consciousness and greater inclusivity. The question becomes, how? (maymay, I want to thank you for doing the first part of the “how” by refusing to keep your mouth shut, and I mean that in the best possible way.)

    • To some degree, I think there is a class element [...] in order to participate in the public scene carries other costs that [...] there is usually a dress code that incorporates expensive fetish gear in some form or another (although I have noted that some will allow “all in black clothes” to pass). [...] but for a long time the cost of something to wear was a big barrier, and that’s one reason why I haven’t participated much in the public scene.

      Spending the money is (in some ways) perceived as analogous to the time and effort one puts into the social group. Your willingness to put out (money, time, or energy) shows the in-crowd how able and willing you are to be a member. The more energy or expense, the more you can be trusted to commit to the group. It also shows that you’re not a sight-seer or a poseur (or in the parlance of other groups, a “weekend warrior”).

      I have gotten back into bicycling in the last few years, and I’ve noticed that while everybody seems to have this idea that “Hey, we’re all cycling, and it’s cool,” there’s a distinct hierarchy. Guys that show up to group rides on certain bikes aren’t taken quite as seriously as the ones who show up with $3,000 carbon fiber whips. I just rebuilt a vintage aluminum frame touring bike, and I’ve been jibed for not having the clipless pedals that require the special (i.e., more expensive) shoes (that you can’t use for anything else). And don’t even get me started on the leg shaving thing.

      Anytime you have more than three people, you’re going to have a classist or elitist or a purist element. That’s a normal part of human nature. Instead of railing against it, though, it might be more productive to understand it, and to figure out a way to make it work better.

      • I too attend the parties I do attend (I rarely go to clubs, for a lot of the reasons being discussed here) to be around “my people,” not necessarily to be transgressive or rebellious.

        A lot of people – not necessarily you – are drawn to aspects of BDSM *because* it’s an unconventional expression of sexuality. For them, the lure of going to the clubs is that it’s enjoyable to hang around with people who are also into the unconventional. And even though you can’t show a nipple on television, sex – at least, vanilla sex – is widely acknowledged in TV, movies, and advertising. That makes it too commonplace for some people, who are then attracted to something more interesting.

        BDSM is transgressive because it’s taboo, not talked about in polite company, and not publicly acknowledged as a culturally sanctioned form of sexual expression. I’ve often wondered how many people would give up their kinks if BDSM suddenly went mainstream.

  14. And this is why I am a liberationist, and you seem to be an assimilationist. [...] You are, in other words, encouraging people to participate in behavior that is fundamentally callous towards the already-most-marginalized groups of people, rather than encouraging them to do the one thing every one of us could do right now to have an unstoppable power: refuse to participate.

    Actually, over the last few years I *have* advocated complete separation from the entire scene paradigm, starting with taking a good, hard look at the terms that we use to describe our tastes in sexuality. I’m still of the mind that using culturally loaded terms like “dominant” and “submissive” are part of what hampers pretty much any change in the culture.

    But I’m pragmatic about some things, and I realize that human nature makes people want to do certain things (like staying in their comfort zones) unless they can see a good reason to do otherwise. Yes, there will always be some people who will speak out (either loudly or subversively), and a minority of people will listen – but not enough to effect any real change. Bottom line is that people will change only when it’s uncomfortable to remain where they are, or more appealing to do something else.

    The BDSM scene is managed by the elites (which is why it’s elitist), and while they may not make all the rules, they have the power/status, and don’t have much motivation to change. The regular people will follow their lead, if they, themselves, believe that doing so will increase their own social status. But some members, not being in a position of high status, and therefore, with little to lose, can be convinced to move on to other avenues of expression. Perhaps it would be going to a different club, say, more diverse, or with a more welcoming cadre of managers. If that person can convince a few friends to come along, and they convince a few others, then there is an opportunity for enough people to challenge the status quo.

    And look, this is all Sociology 101. The tricky part is to get enough people to want the same thing that you do. You can explain the ethics until your voice cracks, but the sad truth is that most people won’t care because they aren’t thinking on that level. The question then becomes: how do you convince people that what you want (e.g., diversity, less rigidity in certain models, more acceptance of non-traditional roles) will be better for them than what they already have?

  15. Hi Tom,

    Em and I haven’t participated in BDSM clubs or organizations in about twenty years. A group that we did belong to, Threshold, in Los Angeles was, at that time, going through a major political upheaval. It was the club’s politics that put me off more than anything. There were certainly elitist types running things but that didn’t matter to me. I certainly wasn’t elite. I was bankrupt and clinically depressed. Still, as always in my life, I was able to make friends. People befriended and mentored me in those early days. Eventually I didn’t need mentoring.

    As far as covert racism in kink, there were certainly fewer minorities represented in the clubs at that time. I don’t think it was club racism that was keeping them away. Believe me, I’m sensitive to this. I was born in the deep south prior to Brown vs. Board of Education. I remember American Apartheid in full bloom. My awareness of the more subtle expressions of racism is very fine tuned. I think there must have been other factors in Los Angeles that impacted the lower incidence of minorities in “the scene.”

    Back then there weren’t many products available and there were only a few books. So the primary conduit for me as an outsider to begin understanding what had until then been only an occasional and furtive plunge into the unknown was through the people I met. Clubs and organizations, with all their flaws, did provide a relatively safe place to begin that education. Now it’s easy. The internet, books, online shops with friendly customer service provide information to all comers.

    I’m an amateur close-up magician and I’ve seen the same phenomenon occur in the world of magic. Product have skyrocketed in price. Little pamphlets that I bought years ago for pennies sometimes go for astonishing prices on eBay. And I have to tell you, elitism is over the top in that little corner of the universe. There are relatively few minority magicians. There aren’t even very many female magicians for that matter.

    There are certainly a lot more kink products to buy now and some of them are prohibitively expensive. That’s how Capitalism functions. If there’s something that’s expensive that I’m drawn to I save my pennies. Bankruptcy and living in Japan’s domestic cash economy taught me a good lesson. Em and I have no actual debt. Credit cards are there for travel and emergencies and get paid off as fast as possible.

    Em really enjoys fucking me with a strapon. We have a number of dildos of varying quality. Since we like strapon play we look for dildos that work for both of us. The fact that high end silicone dildos are now available, to my way of thinking, is a good thing. People have been pegging each other since the beginning of time so the evolution of products reflects the refinements people wanted. Those $3000+ bikes you referred to are way nicer than bikes were just ten or fifteen years ago.

    Though there is a socio-political subtext to kink, I still find all kinds of people from in and out of the club scene. If they are stuck up (elitist) I ignore them.

    Em and I are private. We mostly stay to ourselves, occasionally inviting others to play with us. If it hadn’t been for the clubs though, coming from the oppressive and prudish family that I was born into, I think my sexuality would have stalled and perhaps become a trigger for disappointment and frustration.

    I’m grateful for the good things participating brought me. My cup is at least half full. It’s selfish to want it all, don’t you think?

    Best,

    scott
    Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

  16. [...] the Edge of Vanilla there was a discussion, that got me thinking about the desirability of keeping this part of myself private. People talking [...]

  17. [...] Allen put up an interesting post a few days ago. More interesting than the post, though, is the comments that came afterwards. I [...]

  18. I’m really puzzled by people’s defensive reactions to that article. It may not be flattering, but it could easily have been written about my local scene.

    Margot Weiss says in her article: “These [sexual] experiments are more possible and more accessible to those with class, race and gender privilege”. In my experience that is absolutely true.

    Even given that my city is not exactly the most racially diverse place, the local scene is still overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class, and cis-gendered. It can’t be that there aren’t any kinky people of colour in the whole city, but clearly they don’t feel comfortable coming to public events. I feel safe assuming there are kinky queer people out here too, but again, very few of them come to public events.

    The publicly accessible scene may be different from the private scene, but it’s still worthy of study. I’d even argue that the public scene matters more because most people learn about kink through the public scene. We just need to remember that the public and private scenes are separate things. Perhaps not as separate as we’d like to believe, however. Even the most egalitarian private group of kinky people is still part of the surrounding society. A private scene consisting only of personal friends could have just as many problems as the public scene because of the added difficulty of calling out close friends on their faults.

    It’s not fun to hear about the faults of the scene that we’re so attached to from an ‘outsider’ but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

    • Early last year I read Justin Spring’s Secret Historian, the biography of Sam Steward. If you think about what it was like for a delicate person like Sam to have to go to the waterfront to find rough trade in order to fulfill his sexual needs and then consider how our society has changed in the interim, there’s certainly reason to believe that the so-called “public scene” is a relatively benign place for people to explore their sexual desires.

      I have participated in that scene only intermittently over the years and took from it what it offered. I’m neither rich nor elite. I’m just an average person. I’ve been lucky, as a “heteroflexible” submissive male, to find a loving dominant partner. We’ve been together for twenty very happy and kinky years.

      I think that viewing “the scene” from a purely socio-political POV is too narrow. Most people who participate in BDSM are drawn to it for personal reasons. It’s good to be aware of the sociopolitical ramifications of participating in an activity but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is a part of the problem.

      The problem itself is a larger social issue and not limited to BDSM. America is an elite society founded on exclusion of minority groups. That’s no sudden revelation, is it?

      It’s true that there are often a cadre of Maldoms, self-styled Masters who are reinforcing traditional patriarchal values. But, unless you’re interested in club politics, you can ignore those bozos and go your own way. To be clear, I don’t mean that all males who are Dominant or Masters are bozos. The object with the whole D/s thing is to think and play with that power dynamic. Master/slave is only aspect of it. I’ve met thoughtful, well-adjusted, heterosexual Masters with thoughtful, well-adjusted, heterosexual slaves.

      “The scene” isn’t simply owned by heterosexual Maledoms. It’s more diverse than that. I don’t think “the scene” now is, at its best, really focused on transgression of social norms but rather more on self-actualization, self-acceptance, and fulfilling one’s sexual desires.

      The only reason it appears that people might be trying to rebel against social norms is because in America those norms are so restrictive.

      The roots of the modern scene are surely in the gay community and who would argue that sixty years ago gay people who formed clubs weren’t transgressing society’s norms?

      • there’s certainly reason to believe that the so-called “public scene” is a relatively benign place for people to explore their sexual desires.

        This is true. I could have been clearer about the fact that I think on the whole the scene is a good thing. I met most of my friends through the scene, and my ridiculously adorable boyfriend through a friend I met in the scene. However, I think the scene could be so much better. To make it what it could be, we need to acknowledge the faults it currently has.

        America is an elite society founded on exclusion of minority groups. That’s no sudden revelation, is it?

        Not remotely, but people sometimes seem to have the idea that the scene is somehow separate from the society it developed in. It would be great if that were true, but I think we need to admit that being kinky doesn’t magically keep you from being sexist,racist, classist, cissexist, etc.

        It’s true that there are often a cadre of Maldoms, self-styled Masters who are reinforcing traditional patriarchal values. But, unless you’re interested in club politics, you can ignore those bozos and go your own way.

        I wouldn’t say that it’s only male doms who police people’s behavior. There’s not exactly a shortage of women out there complaining that submissive men are unmanly and therefore unfuckable. Aside from that, I disagree that people who are invested in upholding traditional patriarchal values are only a problem if you’re interested in club politics. My involvement in the local scene isn’t very political – I’m not interested in a leadership position, I just want to go to the odd party and hang out with my friends. It would be really nice if I could do that without constantly being reminded that as a woman I’m expected to be on display, and that the idea of men putting themselves on display for women like me is considered laughable at best.

        • Hello Stabbity,

          I agree the scene could be better… that it’s not probably contributes to my relative low participation in it over the years. It’s not that I feel marginalized by the scene but rather not that energized by it.

          I also agree that some people in the scene sometimes see themselves as being separate or more evolved than the rest of society. However, I haven’t found that the scene is only populated by people like this. I think that society as a whole has evolved and is more sensitive to prejudice and exclusion than it used to be. In fact, I could point to instances in which “the scene” tends toward exemplary inclusiveness. Room for improvement? Yes, certainly.

          I stand corrected regarding “people upholding patriarchal values.” I forgot how much women have to cope with the perception that they are always on display and that they have to measure up to some ideal of beauty. My wife and I have talked about this in the past. Men really don’t have a clue about this.

          Thanks for your response to my comment. It has given me something to think about.

          Best,

          scott
          Mrs. Kelly’s Playhouse

  19. [...] comments at The Edge of Vanilla, which is the inimitable Tom Allen’s blog. What began as a calling out of some of the racist, sexist, and classist replies to Tracy Clark-Flory’s fantastic interview with anthropology professor Margot Weiss turned [...]

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