Sadomasochism To Bdsm Discourse Across Disciplines-Books Download

Sadomasochism to BDSM Discourse Across Disciplines

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5 Wiseman, SM101, pp. 52-56. 6 Examples include workplace discrimination, family custody issues and stigmatising experiences with mental health professionals: see S. Wright, 'Discrimination of SM-Identified Individuals', in P.J.



Limina Volume 22 1 2016 Jacqui Williams
therefore may find it difficult to disclose an interest in BDSM to friends family or
partners Recent work by Tanya Bezreh Thomas Weinberg and Timothy Edgar found
that BDSM practitioners experienced varying levels of real and perceived
stigmatisation when choosing to disclose their interest in BDSM 7 Their study found
that for some participants this stigmatisation led to a culture of self silencing with
many experiencing a resignation to the norm of not talking about BDSM 8 This was
made further apparent with respondents expressing gratitude to the authors for being
offered an opportunity to talk openly about the topic 9 Inspired by these participants
experiences I sought to investigate what socio cultural and historical influences might
have contributed to the stigma associated with BDSM In doing so this paper aims to
contribute to a growing body of research which seeks to disassemble this stigma
For this project I applied a genealogical and discourse analysis approach to
academic and cultural texts regarding BDSM Initial investigations revealed four main
disciplinary areas which have contributed to the discursive field of BDSM psychiatry
sociology feminism and law 10 From these areas I have chosen to discuss four key
historical moments which I suggest have significantly influenced discourse on BDSM
and by extension BDSM practitioners These moments are the publication of
Psychopathia Sexualis the entrance of sociology into the discursive field of BDSM the
feminist sex wars and the UK trials of R v Brown
The project also involved the analysis of narrative depictions of BDSM in
cultural texts such as films and literature I discuss three examples the Fifty Shades
literary trilogy and the films Secretary and Nymphomaniac Vol II and how they
reinforce harmful stereotypes regarding BDSM 11 Finally I touch on the involvement
of practitioners in the discursive field of BDSM
My analysis reveals two major discursive formations that I will argue work to
stigmatise BDSM practitioners and prevent the recognition of BDSM as a legitimate
sexuality 12 These discursive formations which I refer to as pathologised practitioner and
231 M Klein and C Moser SM Sadomasochistic Interests as an Issue in a Child Custody Proceeding
in P J Kleinplatz and C Moser eds Sadomasochism Powerful Pleasures New York Routledge 2011 pp
233 242 and K Kolmes W Stock and C Moser Investigating Bias in Psychotherapy with BDSM
Clients in P J Kleinplatz and C Moser eds Sadomasochism Powerful Pleasures New York Routledge
2011 pp 301 324
7 T Bezreh T S Weinberg and T Edgar BDSM Disclosure and Stigma Management Identifying
Opportunities for Sex Education American Journal of Sexual Education vol 7 no 1 2012 pp 37 61
8 Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar p 48
9 Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar p 53
10 By discursive field I intend the meaning of landscape as opposed to a boundaried area or discipline
In regard to traditional disciplines such as psychiatry also sometimes called fields I have used the term
area for differentiation and clarity
11 E L James Fifty Shades of Grey London Arrow Books 2012 E L James Fifty Shades Freed London
Arrow Books 2012 E L James Fifty Shades Darker London Arrow Books 2012 Secretary dir Steven
Shainberg USA Lionsgate 2002 DVD Nymphomaniac Vol II dir Lars von Trier Denmark
Transmission 2014 DVD
12 A discursive formation is a grouping of multiple statements or discourses which work to reinforce a
particular understanding of a topic or thing The formation is strengthened by power invested in these
statements or discourses by institutional structures which rely upon them Michel Foucault s classic
examples were the concepts of madness and sexuality and the institutional structures of the medicine
and psychiatry Regarding discursive formations see M Foucault The Archaeology of Knowledge trans
A M Sheridan Smith Oxon Routledge Classics 2002 and C Gordon ed Michel Foucault
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BDSM as violence consist of multiple discourses produced and replicated across the
four disciplines discussed here discourses further reinforced through popular
culture It is my contention that in order to move beyond the stigma of BDSM we must
first acknowledge the discourses at the root of our prejudice
Methodological Approach
The methodology that was employed in this paper is based upon Michel Foucault s
genealogical approach an approach which he more often demonstrated than
theorised upon However his essay Nietzsche Genealogy History provides several
points of departure which could be viewed as essential to a genealogical analysis 13
The main point which I would argue is essential and to which this paper adheres as
its methodological focus is the rejection of a search for origins Born out of a critique
of classic historicist approaches Foucault rejected the idea that we could understand
the essence or truth of a topic through one historical moment Instead Foucault
argued that understanding comes from multiple moments and networks of meaning A
genealogical approach involves the discursive analysis of a broad range of texts both
historical and contemporary academic and cultural This method is employed to
provide one possible view of the network of meaning on the topic under analysis 14
The first phase of my research was carried out in response to an academic
database search I performed on the term masochism 15 An overwhelming proportion
of results were situated within the fields of psychiatry psychoanalysis and
psychotherapy This raised the question of why this topic was still so heavily
dominated by pathological medical discourse In an attempt to answer this question
I completed a mini genealogy which focused on the pathologisation of sexually
diverse subjects and discursively analysed a range of literature and cultural texts 16
Some of the analysis and findings specifically the discourse of pathologised
practitioner were used in this paper
To further my research I investigated other academic disciplines which have
taken BDSM as their subject of analysis Upon reviewing the literature four main areas
of academic study were identified as being the main sources of discourse on BDSM
These areas were psychiatry sociology feminism and law
Power Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972 1977 trans Colin Gordon et al Sussex The
Harvester Press Limited 1980
13 M Foucault Nietzsche Genealogy History in Paul Rabinow ed The Foucault Reader
Hardmondsworth Penguin 1986 pp 76 100
14 Importantly any genealogy is not the final word nor the only word on its topic of analysis
15 Conducted as part of my Honours research in 2014
16 I used this terminology to acknowledge that people practiced BDSM like activities prior to the
creation of the term BDSM and prior to the categorising of sadism and masochism in Psychopathia
Sexualis The main texts were H Ellis Studies in the Psychology of Sex 2nd ed vol 3 1927
http www gutenberg org ebooks 13612 accessed 1 June 2014 S Freud Three Essays on Sexuality in
The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud London The Hogarth Press
1986 pp 123 246 E L James Fifty Shades of Grey R v Krafft Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis trans Charles
G Chaddock Philadelphia The F A Davis Company 1894
https archive org details PsychopathiaSexualis1000006945 accessed 6 August 2016 L Sacher Masoch
Venus in Furs in G Deleuze ed Masochism New York Zone Books 1991 pp 142 294 and Secretary
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In applying a genealogical approach to my question of what socio cultural and
historical influences have contributed to the stigma around BDSM I wanted to identify
the possible historical moments which I felt were significantly influential in the current
stigmatisation of BDSM practitioners I had previously conducted work on
pathologisation and the psychiatric field however when I added my research into
feminism and law the discursive theme changed from pathologisation to violence
This is how I adduced my dual discourse framework of pathologised practitioner and
BDSM as violence Finally since I had previously analysed discourses of pathology in
cultural texts I tested the BDSM as violence discourse across this area also The
findings confirmed the framework and are presented here
It is important to acknowledge the limitations of this paper and its findings in
relation to my chosen methodology The time resources and word length restrictions
of this paper necessarily mean that at best this is a mini genealogy Ideally this project
would also have analysed community produced publications private
correspondence news media sources archival sources and other historical data
sources to name a few Therefore the findings here are representative only of the
discourses that were analysed and are in no way comprehensive or definitive This
project should be viewed as the beginning of a larger project and a continuance of the
excellent work already conducted by others within the field
Psychiatry Pathologised Practitioner
The publication of Psychopathia Sexualis by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft Ebing in
1886 is one of the most cited historical moments in academic literature regarding
BDSM The book s importance lies in its categorisation of sexual pathologies which
include among others sadism masochism fetishism and homosexuality Also
contained within later editions of the book are hundreds of criminal case studies that
Krafft Ebing collected during his time as a medico legal expert These case studies
which ranged from public exposure to murder were the basis for each pathological
category Up until this point practices such as whipping and bondage had been
practiced privately without much concern some claim since as far back as the 17th
century 17 As Kathy Sisson contends Psychopathia Sexualis conferred typology
aetiology and pathology on previously unremarkable sexual behaviours and desires
emphasis added 18 What it also did was to discursively produce the sexually deviant
subject and significantly shape the discursive formation of pathologised practitioner 19
Krafft Ebing categorised the behaviours of sadism and masochism under the
grouping perversion of the sexual instinct 20 Sadism is defined in Psychopathia
Sexualis as the association of active cruelty and violence with lust and masochism as
17 K Sisson The Cultural Formation of S M History and Analysis in D Langdridge and M Barker
eds Safe Sane and Consensual Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism New York Palgrave
Macmillan 2007 p 19
18 Sisson p 20
19 The discursive production of sexual deviance can be viewed as part of the wider medicalisation
project as described by Foucault see M Foucault The History of Sexuality Volume 1 An Introduction
trans Robert Hurley London Penguin 1978
20 R v Krafft Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis p 56
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the passive opposite or the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force 21 These
definitions have moved beyond the scope of psychiatry into the popular vernacular
with modern definitions being strikingly similar The impact of Krafft Ebing on the
pathologised practitioner discursive formation can further be revealed when we take
into account the modern equivalent to Psychopathia Sexualis the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM 22
First published in 1952 the DSM assists psychiatrists in the diagnosis of
patients It remains the primary system for classifying mental disorders in the United
States 23 In the most recent version DSM 5 sexual sadism and masochism are
classified as paraphilic disorders alongside fetishism transvestitism and
paedophilia 24 Up until 1973 homosexuality was also classified as a paraphilia in the
DSM 25 It is clear that Krafft Ebing s categorisations have had a continuing influence
in the discursive production of sexual subjects in the field of psychiatry with little
difference between the grouping of perversions in 1886 and paraphilic disorders in
2013 However even more crucial in the pathologisation of practitioners are the
diagnostic features of the manual itself
Certain aspects of the DSM assist mental health professionals in differentiating
those people with a disorder and therefore requiring treatment from those who
merely have non normative sexual interests For example one diagnostic criteria of
sexual sadism disorder is for the person to have acted out their urges on a non
consenting person hence differentiating between a person with sadistic desires and
someone acting on those desires non consensually 26 In the cases of sexual sadism and
sexual masochism the urges or desires of the person must cause clinically significant
distress or impairment in social occupational or other important areas of
functioning 27 However if we look more closely at the diagnostic features of for
example sexual masochism disorder and begin to apply it to the real world the
differentiation and therefore diagnosis becomes less clear The DSM 5 states in
regards to sexual masochism disorder
Such individuals openly acknowledge intense sexual arousal from the
act of being humiliated beaten bound or otherwise made to suffer as
manifested by fantasies urges or behaviors If these individuals also
report psychosocial difficulties because of their sexual attractions or
preferences they may be diagnosed with sexual masochism
disorder 28
21 Krafft Ebing pp 57 89
22 The DSM is an American manual The European version is the International Classification of Diseases
ICD published by the World Health Organisation WHO The classification of paraphilias which
include sadomasochism sits within the section of the ICD entitled Mental and Behavioural Disorders
23 A R Beech M H Miner and D Thornton Paraphilias in the DSM 5 Annual Review of Clinical
Psychology vol 12 2016 p 384
24 American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edn
Arlington American Psychiatric Association 2013
25 C Silverstein The Implications of Removing Homosexuality from the DSM as a Mental Disorder
Archives of Sexual Behavior vol 38 no 2 2009 pp 161 163
26 American Psychiatric Association DSM 5 p 695
27 American Psychiatric Association pp 694 695
28 American Psychiatric Association p 694
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It is clear here that the presence of psychosocial difficulties is a defining factor in
diagnosis a defining factor that is problematic when applied to real world
practitioners of BDSM
The research participants in the study by Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar
experienced varying degrees of stigma in disclosing their interest in BDSM Of note
here are those who experienced difficulty in finding partners with whom they could
share those interests Bezreh et al state a number of people described being rejected
by potential partners who refused to participate or learn about BDSM 29 One
participant who
worked as a master to paying clients reported having some clients
with enormous psychological issues because they ve been told they
were sick or depraved who then never mentioned their interests
As indicated by this study BDSM practitioners deal with psychosocial
difficulties because of stigma they face in disclosing their interests This stigma which
is in part perpetuated by the pathologising discourses of psychiatry creates the very
environment for psychosocial difficulties which are the basis for diagnoses in the DSM
This leaves practitioners in a feedback loop in which they are in danger of diagnosis if
they seek help for anxieties regarding their desires anxieties which were in part
created by the psychiatric discourses in the first place Further this danger is not
merely speculation It has been discussed by Keely Kolmes Wendy Stock and Charles
Moser in their research into biased mental health care 31 Their research found that
BDSM practitioners in therapy experienced a range of issues when disclosing their
BDSM activities to their therapists These included having to educate the therapist
about BDSM being told they had to give up BDSM before the therapist would
continue treatment and assuming that the practitioner had suffered past family or
spousal abuse 32
Over the last ten years however there has been a campaign led by academics in
the fields of psychology and sociology and by social groups such as the National
Coalition of Sexual Freedom to have sadism and masochism removed from the DSM 33
This pressure led to an important change in the latest version DSM 5 published 2013
that emphasises that a desire for these practices does not necessarily mean the
existence of a disorder 34 The DSM 5 states that a paraphilia by itself does not
29 Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar American Journal of Sexual Education p 50
30 Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar p 50
31 Kolmes Stock and Moser Sadomasochism Powerful Pleasures pp 301 324
32 Kolmes Stock and Moser p 314 Their study also found that approximately a third of participants
had sought what they term kink aware professionals However some found the services were too
expensive inaccessible due to location or not suitable to the client for reasons such as preferred gender
of the therapist p 314 See also M Barker A Iantaffi and C Gupta Kinky clients kinky counselling
The challenges and potentials of BDSM in L Moon ed Feeling Queer or Queer Feelings Oxon
Routledge 2008 pp 106 124
33 Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar American Journal of Sexual Education p 39 and P J Kleinplatz and C
Moser eds Sadomasochism Powerful Pleasures New York Routledge 2011
34 Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar pp 39 40
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necessarily justify or require clinical intervention 35 While the change marked a shift
in the way that diagnoses are approached I argue this caveat does little to help
practitioners of BDSM since their desires are still pathologised by being classed as
paraphilic With seemingly little regard for studies that have shown the detrimental
effects of psychiatric discourse on BDSM practitioners the APA continues to include
sexual sadism and masochism in the DSM 36 This perpetuates discourse of the
pathologised practitioner reaffirms the discursive formation through the disciplinary
structure of the institution of psychiatry and continues the stigmatisation of BDSM
and its practitioners This is the legacy of Krafft Ebing and Psychopathia Sexualis
Sociology De pathologising Discourse
It is however important to remember that discursive formations are not just made up
of one sided discourse They also include all discourse that works to oppose a
dominant discourse within a particular formation In this way the entrance of
sociology into the discursive field of BDSM is our next key historical moment
In 1978 sociologist Thomas Weinberg published Sadism and Masochism
Sociological Perspectives 37 This was one of the first attempts to conceptualise BDSM
practices as a social phenomenon rather than a psychopathology and paved the way
for contemporary understandings of BDSM In his article Weinberg discussed two
aspects of BDSM which have been important in the de pathologisation of practitioners
its sociality and its fantasy aspect 38
Using a subcultural framework Weinberg explained how practitioners are
drawn together by their shared predicament having a non normative desire and an
inability to express it This leads to social groups which educate new participants and
offer acceptance to the group This aspect of Weinberg s findings was very important
as it opened up the potential to view practitioners not as individual deviants who
were hiding their practices but as more normal people who desired the interaction
connections and acceptance that social groups and sub cultures provide
Weinberg s second analytical framework was the concept of fantasy or
theatrical frame after Erving Goffman 39 Using this framework Weinberg explained
how practitioners act out scenes have a shared vocabulary and share certain
understandings or keys These keys allow them to turn actions which may look on
the outside like violence into a kind of play This understanding of BDSM as a kind
of fantasy or play has been another crucial aspect in the de pathologisation of BDSM
35 American Psychiatric Association DSM V p 686
36 There is also no indication that WHO plans to remove sadomasochism from the list of paraphilias in
the upcoming ICD 11 as at date of publication World Health Organisation Classification of Diseases
http www who int classifications icd en accessed 15 September 2016
37 T S Weinberg Sadism and Masochism Sociological Perspectives The Bulletin of the American Academy
of Psychiatry and the Law vol 6 no 3 1978 pp 284 295
38 I have used the term BDSM here for consistency however Weinberg uses the term S M in his
39 Erving Goffman developed the theory of dramaturgy in order explain how people create their sense
of self through social life These ideas were developed in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Garden City Anchor 1959 Weinberg makes reference to Goffman s later book Frame Analysis
Cambridge Harvard University Press 1974
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for some practitioners as it works to counter discourse which produces practitioners
as pathological subjects perpetrating real acts of humiliation and violence 40
Another example of the important sociological work of the time is G W Levi
Kamel s article Leathersex Meaningful Aspects of Gay Sadomasochism 41 Although
it focused primarily on practices within the gay leather scene it made important
distinctions about the nature of BDSM which were adopted in subsequent sociological
research 42 For instance Kamel determined BDSM to be fundamentally about the
power play of dominance and submission rather than solely about pain and cruelty
Furthermore when pain is involved in a BDSM encounter it has a different meaning
to practitioners than it does to the outside world As Kamel explains
Sadists of leathersex do not take pleasure in causing pain for the mere
sake of the act Nor is it pleasurable if his lover does not share the S M
definition of pain Likewise the masochist who stubs his toe on an
unruly sidewalk does not get an erotic charge Painful accidents are
painful with no confusion whatsoever The pain of S M is defined
differently and it is the method by which partners maintain their
dominant and submissive roles It is a means to an end 43
This explanation problematises common definitions of sadism and masochism which
focus on cruelty and pain and which disregard the element of dominance and
submission In doing so Kamel s findings like those of Weinberg began the work of
de pathologisation by creating a new discourse which most closely reflected the
experiences of real world practitioners Since then a large proportion of academic
work on BDSM has been aimed at refuting the notion of practitioners as sick directly
opposing the discourse of pathologised practitioner 44 The essential element in the
majority of this work is the use of everyday practitioners of BDSM as opposed to
psychiatric patients as the source of research data This has been an important shift
toward viewing BDSM practitioners as having an alternative sexuality rather than a
psychopathology Sociological scholarship has even begun to influence work being
undertaken in the field of psychiatry and psychology with researchers working to
depathologise BDSM from within those fields 45
40 It is important to note here that while some practitioners may approach their practice as a form of
play other practitioners may seek real forms of humiliation and practices that could be considered as
real violence For further analysis on practitioner understandings of their practice and notions of
violence see Chapter 6 S Newmahr Playing on the Edge Sadomasochism Risk and Intimacy
Bloomington Indiana University Press 2011 pp 123 143
41 G W Levi Kamel Leathersex Meaningful Aspects of Gay Sadomasochism Deviant Behavior vol 1
no 2 1980 pp 171 191
42 Again I use BDSM here whereas Kamel uses S M
43 Kamel Deviant Behavior p 178 For further analysis on practitioner s complex relationship with pain
see S Newmahr Power Struggles Pain and Authenticity in SM Play Symbolic Interaction vol 33 no 3
2010 pp 389 411 and Langdridge Safe Sane and Consensual pp 91 103
44 See for example the collected editions P J Kleinplatz and C Moser eds Sadomasochism Powerful
Pleasures New York Routledge 2011 and D Langdridge and M Barker eds Safe Sane and Consensual
Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism New York Palgrave Macmillan 2007 See also Newmahr
Playing on the Edge and E L Turley Like nothing I ve ever felt before understanding consensual
BDSM as embodied experience Psychology Sexuality vol 7 no 2 2016 pp 149 162
45 For example Bezreh Weinberg and Edgar American Journal of Sexual Education pp 37 61
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Although these de pathologising discourses are necessary in order to relieve
some of the stigma faced by practitioners they are situated within the very discursive
formation which they seek to oppose The continued production of pathology
discourse even though oppositional inevitably perpetuates and constitutes the
pathologised practitioner discursive formation This is because de pathology is
necessarily predicated on pathology The discursive production of the pathologised
subject gives rise to conditions in which it is possible to produce opposing discourse
This is not to say we are forever trapped in a discursive dilemma but the ability to
move beyond it is hampered by the investment in pathology discourse by institutions
such as psychiatry While small shifts have been made such as the recent concession
in the DSM 5 the pathologised practitioner discursive formation is so deeply
embedded in the discursive field of BDSM that it may be some time before we are able
to move beyond it
Feminism BDSM as violence
By taking into account the social and cultural conditions that gave rise to the study of
BDSM within sociology we are able to reveal the second discursive formation BDSM
as violence The change in social and cultural attitudes towards sex in the 1960s and
1970s led to a greater ability within the humanities and social sciences to begin to study
sex and sexuality beyond its medical and biological function The growing gay and
lesbian rights movements around this time also gave rise to academic studies of these
communities and as I ve outlined above some of the first studies of BDSM practices
within the humanities were focused on the gay leather scene The late 1970s saw a
growing lesbian BDSM scene in New York and San Francisco 46 However with the rise
of second wave feminism coming to a head at the same time feminists became
polarised on issues such as pornography sex work and BDSM 47 The so called feminist
sex wars and in particular the debate around BDSM is the next key historical
This debate took form most notably in the publication of two edited collections
The first Coming to Power was published by San Francisco based women s BDSM
group SAMOIS in 1981 The second Against Sadomasochism was published in 1982 by
a collective of radical feminists opposed to BDSM 48 The two groups had been in
opposition for a number of years through the local lesbian and feminist communities
in San Francisco The two publications were not merely published in a similar
timeframe but were direct responses to the arguments of the other side 49 Out of their
debate came two major discourses BDSM replicates violence and the questioning of
the validity of consent
46 P Califia A Personal View of the History of the Lesbian S M Community and Movement in San
Francisco in Samois ed Coming to Power Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S M Boston Alyson 1987
pp 245 283
47 L S Chancer From Pornography to Sadomasochism Reconciling Feminist Differences The ANNALS
of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences vol 571 no 1 2000 pp 77 88
48 The authors of both of these edited collections use varying terminology mostly S M for the former
and sadomasochism for the latter
49 For the history of the formation of SAMOIS and the feud between the two groups mentioned here see
Califia Coming to Power pp 245 283
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While as an edited collection Against Sadomasochism contains varying opinions
on why BDSM should be opposed a major argument across several authors work is
that it replicates forms of hetero patriarchal violence As Bat Ami Bar On argues
The primary claim of the feminist position is that the erotization of
violence or domination and of pain and powerlessness is at the core of
sadomasochism and consequently that the practice of sadomasochism
embodies the same values as heterosexual practices of sexual
domination in general and sexual violent practices like rape in
particular 50
This theme of violence also runs through other contributors work Sally Roesch
Wagner argues that BDSM is a by product of a culture in which romance stories and
pornography teach men to be sexually violent and teach women to enjoy it 51 Similarly
compelling are first hand survivor narratives such as Marissa Jonel s experiences of
abuse and violence in lesbian BDSM relationships 52 Although she initially enjoyed
being an out masochist in a lesbian BDSM relationship Jonel s long term partner
eventually turned abusive This experience led her to the conclusion that BDSM was
simply a cover for violence As she states
all this talk about consensual sex changing roles back and forth safe
words etc ad nauseum is to my mind just a cover that encourages
women to be violent Sadomasochism is violence 53
In Coming to Power many of the contributors argue from fictional and
experiential rather than theoretical perspectives Much of the discourse produced
centres around protecting the right to choose Counter to discourses of violence
produced by the radical feminist perspective like those in Against Sadomasochism the
arguments in Coming to Power focus on discourses of consensuality The authors posit
in varying ways that BDSM can be differentiated from violence and abuse because of
its consensual nature Conversely authors in Against Sadomasochism claim consent is
irrelevant to the debate for several reasons Diana Russell argues that violence is
violence regardless of how someone perceives it consensual or not Further she
argues that the fact of consensuality does not negate circumstances in which persons
can be victims of oppression or coercion 54 Robin Ruth Linden uses the example of the
Stanford Prison Experiment in order to make the unconvincing point that the notion
of consent is compromised by the power imbalance inherent in the
50 B Bar On Feminism and Sadomasochism Self Critical Notes in R R Linden ed Against
Sadomasochism A Radical Feminist Analysis San Francisco Frog in the Well 1982 p 75
51 S R Wagner Pornography and the Sexual Revolution The Backlash of Sadomasochism in R R
Linden ed Against Sadomasochism A Radical Feminist Analysis San Francisco Frog in the Well 1982
52 M Jonel Letter from a Former Masochist in R R Linden ed Against Sadomasochism A Radical
Feminist Analysis San Francisco Frog in the Well 1982 pp 16 22
53 Jonel p 19
54 D Russell Sadomasochism A Contra Feminist Activity in R R Linden ed Against Sadomasochism
A Radical Feminist Analysis San Francisco Frog in the Well 1982 p 178
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dominant submissive relationship 55 Finally both Karen Rian and Bar On argue that
consensuality is irrelevant to the debate since women s ability to consent is
compromised by the patriarchal system which creates an illusion of choice 56
Many of these points are both problematic and compelling and they continue
to influence contemporary debates on BDSM and feminism However what is most
significant about the discourse produced particularly from the radical feminist
perspectives is they marked a shift in the discursive field of BDSM Up until this point
discourses around BDSM and violence were practically non existent As previously
mentioned the primary discursive formation regarding BDSM practitioners was one
of psychopathology they were sick and therefore in need of treatment What the sex
wars did was to develop discourses around BDSM and violence that had not been
seen before This is not to say radical feminists created the discursive formation of
BDSM as violence rather the fact that the discourses were able to be produced at that
moment in time indicates a shift in how the BDSM practitioner as subject could be
talked about or discursively produced As Stuart Hall has argued one element of the
production of subjects through discourse is the
acknowledgement that a different discourse or episteme will arise at a
later historical moment supplanting the existing one opening up a new
discursive formation and producing in its turn new conceptions of
madness or punishment or sexuality new discourse with the power
and authority the truth to regulate social practices in new ways 57
In this way the sex wars debates were the first indication that a new
discursive formation was evolving regarding BDSM practitioners The new
conception of BDSM was one of violence and oppression Practitioners were therefore
in danger of harm and in need of protection from each other and from themselves
Their protector was to be the legal system
Law R v Brown
The next key socio historical moment in the BDSM as violence formation is Operation
Spanner and the subsequent trials of R v Brown 58 In 1992 UK police came into
possession of video tape recordings of a group of gay men involved in consensual
BDSM The tapes were found in the pursuit of an unrelated case and the men freely
admitted to taking part in the BDSM activities They were prosecuted and convicted
under sections 20 and 47 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 for inflicting bodily
injury and assault occasioning bodily harm In the subsequent appeal the defence
55 R R Linden Introduction Against Sadomasochism in R R Linden ed Against Sadomasochism A
Radical Feminist Analysis San Francisco Frog in the Well 1982 pp 7 10
56 K Rian Sadomasochism and the Social Construction of Desire R R Linden ed Against
Sadomasochism A Radical Feminist Analysis San Francisco Frog in the Well 1982 p 49 and Bar On
Against Sadomasochism p 80
57 S Hall Foucault Power Knowledge and Discourse in M Wetherell S Taylor and S J Yates eds
Discourse Theory and Practice A Reader London Sage Publications 2001 p 74
58 R v Brown 1992 QB 491 2 All ER 552 2 WLR 441
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counsel argued the Offences against the Person Act was not designed to deal with cases
such as R v Brown They argued that
There is abundant legislation dealing with sexual behaviour but none
which assisted the Crown in prosecuting the appellants It is this
circumstance which caused the Crown to search around and choose
inappropriate legislation 59
While the Court dismissed these claims the point had been made the
underlying discourse of the case had been shifted from one of sexual deviance to one of
sexual violence This was confirmed in the opinion of one of the five presiding Lords in
the appeals case Lord Templeman said i n my opinion sado masochism is not only
concerned with sex Sado masochism is also concerned with violence 60 He thus
asserted the relevance of the legislation to the case And yet certain kinds of violence
or wounding of the body are protected under the Offences against the Person Act 1861
namely contact sports like boxing cosmetic and other surgeries like circumcision and
tattooing 61 This then begs the question why not BDSM Mathew Weait has suggested
that unlike sport or surgery in which participants seek to avoid injury practitioners
of BDSM may intentionally seek out activities in which injury is a possibility or
eventuality 62 As Weait states in R v Brown the injury was of the essence it was an
aesthetic sensuous desired experience for the men who consented to the injury 63 He
goes on to argue that the corporeal autonomy exercised by the BDSM practitioners is
a direct affront to the law which is charged with both the protection and the
punishment of persons within the community He continues
Those who participate willingly in S M are thus at least at a symbolic
level law s gravest threat Not only do tops place themselves in the
position of the law by inflicting the pain and or injury that will satisfy
their desire but bottoms ridicule the power of law by actively enjoying
the top to engage in the discipline and ritual humiliation upon which
the law depends for its authority 64
However the major point of the appeals case was not to determine if the
appellants had inflicted bodily injury or assault occasioning bodily harm but to
determine if consent could be a valid defence against these counts The men lost their
appeal by three votes to two with the court determining consent was not a valid
defence In giving his verdict Lord Templeman again turned to the theme of violence
He argued that
59 R v Brown 1994 1 AC 212 216
60 R v Brown 235
61 R v Brown 231
62 M Weait Sadomasochism and the Law in D Langdridge and M Barker eds Safe Sane and
Consensual Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism New York Palgrave Macmillan 2007 p 79
63 Weait pp 79 80
64 Weait p 80
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Limina Volume 22 1 2016 Jacqui Williams
In principle there is a difference between violence which is incidental
and violence which is inflicted for the indulgence of cruelty The
violence of sado masochistic encounters involves the indulgence of
cruelty by sadists and the degradation of victims Such violence is
injurious to the participants and unpredictably dangerous I am not
prepared to invent a defence of consent for sado masochistic
encounters which breed and glorify cruelty and result in offences under
sections 47 and 20 65
He further appealed to the notion that the court had an obligation to protect the public
from harm and against what he called a cult of violence 66
The case of R v Brown demonstrates not only a reinforcement of the violence
discourse but a solidifying of the BDSM as violence discursive formation through the
disciplinary institution of the legal system Just as the institution of psychiatry relies
upon and invests with power the discourses of pathology and sexual deviance so
too does the legal institution rely upon discourses of violence and the threat of harm
in order to fulfil its purpose to protect and punish Furthermore the case reified the
violence discourse by rejecting the validity of consent through its legal precedent In
an almost mirror image of arguments put forth by radical feminists some ten years
earlier the judicial system in the UK replicated the discourses of violence and consent
in BDSM and reiterated the notion that practitioners need to be protected from
themselves
This has left BDSM practitioners in a legal predicament On the one hand the
legal system in the UK fails to provide any explicit laws which make BDSM practice
illegal and on the other hand there are no laws in place which explicitly protect
consensual practitioners 67 There have also not been enough cases to confirm or reject
the findings in R v Brown In an Australian context the legal landscape is similarly
vague the use of common law means R v Brown could come into play in future
cases involving consent and BDSM 68
The discursive formation of BDSM as violence including the notion that
consent is an invalid defence impacts BDSM practitioners to as great a degree as
discourses which pathologise them The shifting discursive field means BDSM
discourse which was once solely the domain of psychiatry is now intertwined
through the fields of sociology feminist theory and law all of which claim to best
understand BDSM While these domains are accessible to relatively few popular
culture has the potential to reach large groups of the population which in turn can
have a significant impact on BDSM practitioners
Popular Culture
The two discursive formations of pathologised practitioner and BDSM as violence
have developed and have been reinforced across multiple academic and theoretical
65 R v Brown 236
66 M Weait Safe Sane and Consensual pp 72 76 and R v Brown 237
67 T Bennett Sadomasochism under the Human Rights Sexual Conduct Act 1994 Sydney Law Review
vol 35 2013 pp 541 564
68 Bennett p 552
The Limina Editorial Collective
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Limina Volume 22 1 2016 Jacqui Williams
disciplines These discourses permeate the socio cultural world and add another
dimension to the struggle for recognition of BDSM practitioners This is demonstrated
in the following three examples of contemporary narratives that depict BDSM the
literary trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey and the films Secretary and Nymphomaniac Vol II
The pathologised practitioner discursive formation is reinforced through the
narratives and characters of Fifty Shades and Secretary In the Fifty Shades series the
male protagonist Christian introduces the female protagonist Anastasia to aspects
of BDSM particularly dominant submissive D s relationships 69 As a novice to
BDSM Anastasia seeks to understand why Christian likes to dominate women why
he is the way he is The narrative positions Christian as somehow broken because of
his non normative desires and simultaneously positions Anastasia as the person who
can save or heal him 70 Throughout the series Christian suffers from nightmares and
struggles to share his feelings with Anastasia Eventually and through much
provocation on Anastasia s part it is revealed that Christian has a history of childhood
abuse and negligent parenting Further to this traumatic past the reader also
discovers that Christian s introduction to BDSM was through the advances of an older
woman when he was a teenage boy a relationship not so subtly deemed as
paedophilia by Anastasia 71 These two narrative elements link Christian s desires for
BDSM and domination with his abusive past a causal relationship which works to
pathologise Christian and BDSM more generally This narrative device which aims
to provide the protagonists with a challenge to overcome is however based upon
what Lisa Downing terms problematic universalising clich s about non normative
sexuality 72 The clich or stereotype of the pervert with a dark past can be seen to
have its roots in the work of thinkers such as Krafft Ebing who in his case analyses
made particular note of home life upbringing and parental history 73
In the early scenes of Secretary the protagonist Lee is released from a mental
care facility She takes a position as a lawyer s secretary and eventually develops a D s
relationship with her boss Mr Grey This relationship begins when Mr Grey discovers
Lee is a self harmer who cuts her own thighs In response to this discovery Mr Grey
begins to administer spankings to Lee in order to help her shift her desire for pain into
a more positive outlet However the element of the narrative that Lee self harms is
69 Dominant submissive relationships known as D s or Ds as well as TPE Total Power
Exchange are where the parties involved continue the power exchange dynamic beyond a scene and
into their day to day lives see P Dancer P J Kleinplatz and C Moser 24 7 Slavery in P J Kleinplatz
and C Moser eds Sadomasochism Powerful Pleasures New York Routledge 2011 pp 81 101 and R
Green Total Power Exchange in a Modern Family A Personal Perspective in D Langdridge and M
Barker eds Safe Sane and Consensual Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism New York Palgrave
Macmillan 2007
70 For further analysis on the dark light dichotomy of Christian and Anastasia see K Harrison and M
Holm Exploring Grey Zones and Blind Spots in the Binaries and Boundaries of E L James Fifty Shades
Trilogy Feminist Media Studies vol 13 no 3 2013 pp 558 562
71 Some examples include Anastasia refers to the older woman Elena as Mrs Robinson but escalates
to Mrs Pedo and later she confronts Elena suggesting she molested Christian as a fifteen year old
child see respectively James Fifty Shades of Grey pp 414 416 434 and James Fifty Shades Darker p
72 L Downing Safewording Kinkphobia and gender normativity in Fifty Shades of Grey Psychology
and Sexuality vol 4 no 1 2013 pp 92 102
73 Krafft Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis
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Limina Volume 22 1 2016 Jacqui Williams
completely missing from the original short story version 74 I argue this narrative device
has been added so the audience can better understand Lee s desires for spanking and
submission It gives the audience a plausible explanation for Lee s interest in and
enjoyment of these behaviours 75 However it does so through a pathological linking
with the act of cutting and self harm 76 This discourse that masochists are self
harmers is again bound up in the wider pathologised practitioner discursive
formation and has its roots in psychiatric definitions of masochism 77
The BDSM as violence discursive formation is evident in both subtle and
explicit ways in the second of the Nymphomaniac films and the Fifty Shades series In
Nymphomaniac II the female protagonist Joe experiments with more and more
extreme forms of sexual desire and expression At the pinnacle of this journey Joe
spends a period of time visiting a professional dominant K who provides bondage
and discipline services While Joe enjoys her time with K this touch with the dark
side of sexuality is the catalyst for a downward spiral of chaos in Joe s life
Immediately after her time with K Joe takes a job working as a debt collector for a
criminal enterprise As part of this role she takes the skills she has learned from K
notably bondage and discipline and uses them to bind and torture men for money
This juxtaposition places what was mutually beneficial consensual BDSM squarely
alongside criminal abusive behaviour Not only does this suggest BDSM leads to a life
of violence and crime but that practices and skills of BDSM can just as easily be used
in non consensual violent and abusive ways
In Fifty Shades of Grey the language used by Anastasia is meant to indicate her
naivety however it also can be seen to represent mainstream attitudes of a society
unfamiliar with BDSM In describing Christian s BDSM dedicated playroom
Anastasia calls it his Red Room of Pain an Elizabethan torture setup and likens it
to the Spanish Inquisition 78 Further throughout the book Anastasia repeatedly uses
the words hurt hit and beat with lines such as He likes to hurt women I don t want
him to beat me and in the subject line of an email Anastasia sends to Christian she
writes Assault and Battery The After Effects 79 The language used here gives a
stronger impression of non consensuality and violence than it does of consensual
BDSM While the narrative attempts to express the experiences of a novice practitioner
overawed by their new world this use of language frames the relationship as abusive
and works to reinforce discursive connections between violence abuse and BDSM 80
There are two crucial points here First very few mainstream narratives of
BDSM practice exist The narratives that are available seem to indicate an acceptance
of this form of sexuality and yet on closer inspection they continue to perpetuate
74 M Gaitskill Bad Behaviour New York Simon Schuster 1988
75 Credit goes to my editor D Seiler for her assistance with this insight
76 M D Weiss Mainstreaming Kink The Politics of BDSM Representation in U S Popular Media
Journal of Homosexuality vol 50 no 2 3 2006 pp 103 132
77 P A Cross and K Matheson Understanding Sadomasochism An Empirical Examination of Four
Perspectives in P J Kleinplatz and C Moser eds Sadomasochism Powerful Pleasures New York
Routledge 2011 pp 133 166
78 James Fifty Shades of Grey pp 126 100 97
79 James pp 100 286 292
80 The notion of abuse in Fifty Shades of Grey has been discussed in A E Bonomi L E Altenburger and
N L Walton Double crap abuse and harmed identity in Fifty Shades of Grey Journal of Women s
Health vol 22 no 9 2013 pp 733 744
The Limina Editorial Collective
http www limina arts uwa edu au


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