…But Chains and Whips Excite Me

In “The Time Of The Sadomasochist,” Darren Langdridge gives an account of how of BDSM practitioners have formed communities to pursue their sexual interests and protect their practices from stigmatization by legal and medical institutions. The article begins with a brief discussion of how the view of BDSM psychoanalytic theory inherited from Freud served to pathologize it, the most glaring example being the fact that sadism and masochism are included as mental disorders in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of The American Psychiatric Association). Next it summarizes a legal case where police in the UK arrested 16 gay men for participation in consensual sadomasochistic sex and either fined or imprisoned them for up to 4 years.

Both of these examples frame the rest of the article, which discusses how BDSM communities organize themselves in the face of institutional hostility. Langdridge argues that, owing to their variety, these communities should not be understood as distinct subcultures, but rather as neo-tribes: “Unlike subcultures, S/M communities are fluid and dynamic, coming together through a sense of sexual belonging rather than through structural or political factors” (375) A neo-tribe is explained as a community more dynamic than a subculture, lacking rigid organization or membership criteria.

Langdridge says the phrase “Safe, Sane, And Consensual” is the near-ubiquitous motto for BDSM neo-tribes. It describes a common commitment to protecting the health and dignity of all bodies involved in BDSM practice, as well as resistance to the legal and medical efforts to stigmatize BDSM. In this vein, the remainder of the article deals with a bill of rights for submissives and a discussion of the considerations unique to BDSM practice that have to go into a notion of consent.

Considering its relatively short length, this piece serves its purpose extremely well. It offers a valuable survey of BDSM practice’s status in our cultural moment. It acknowledges the diversity among BDSM practitioners as well as the variety of ways in which BDSM practice can factor into identity formation. Although it doesn’t describe exactly how the notion of consent has to be expanded for BDSM, it does at least present the topic for consideration, which is all that could be fairly expected given the scope of the article.

The only weakness I can identify would be in the section where it discusses medicine’s institutional relationship to BDSM. I certainly agree that we’ve inherited a great deal of questionable theory from Freud, but in certain cases, psychiatry should be worried about sadism and masochism, so it’s unfair to ignore what I think are good intentions on the part of psychiatrists. Sometimes people can sexually fixate on acts that highly damaging to either their own or others’ well being, sometimes even to the point of ignoring the consent rule. Of course this isn’t to treat safe BDSM interchangeably with pathological sadism and masochism, but only to say that, because medicine should be working to prevent certain kinds of sadism, it’s unfair to paint medical institutions as monochromatically oppressive to BDSM practitioners. How would you approach this situation if you were a psychiatrist? If a patient reported feeling sexually aroused by fantasies of inflicting pain on others, do you think you’d feel comfortable encouraging it and trusting them to keep it safe, sane, and consensual?

This discussion of BDSM relates to a number of other concepts we’ve discussed so far in class. A form of essentialism is often brought to bear against BDSM practice, the notion that humans have a basic sexual setup (reproductive, heterosexual, coital, monogamous, missionary), and any deviation from the biological fundamental should be discouraged. How about social institutions? What institutions discourage BDSM? The better question might be what institutions don’t discourage BDSM. Church, family, friends, school, media… In fact now that I give it some thought, I don’t there’s a single institution I engage with on a regular basis that would be tolerant toward BDSM practice. Consider your own circumstances: Say, hypothetically, 50 Shades swept you off your feet, and you decided BDSM practice was going to become an important piece of your identity. How would the institutions that surround you receive it? Do you think there’s a part of the population that feels “trapped in the closet” about their interest in BDSM? How would you treat a friend who came out to you as interested in BDSM?

The list for potential connections is obviously could run on, but I want to save room to discuss a non-50-Shades mass visibility point for BDSM. Queue Rihanna:

 

 

There’s a part of me that suspects whenever BDSM is portrayed in the mass media like this, real BDSM practitioners must shake their heads the same way real doctors shake their heads during episodes of ER. Putting authenticity issues aside though, what do we see in this video that speaks to the article? Certainly the legal resistance from the cops as well the psychiatric condemnation in the newsprint that flashes “Daddy Issues?” across the screen. The most important connection though runs parallel to the article’s biggest loose end, and ultimately serves as the deciding point for whether S&M represents progress or regress for social acceptance of the BDSM world. The video screams consent ambiguity. Look at the taped up press members. Is this a portrayal of participants who have consented to the scene beforehand just acting out their roles, or it using a non-safe/sane/consensual caricature of BDSM to exoticize Rihanna’s artistic aura? Big implications either way.

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