Towards a BDSM Orientation

Glossary

SM – sado-masochism, now more commonly known as BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism)

Kink – derived from the idea of having a bend, or kink, in one’s sexual behaviour and appropriated by some sexual fetishists as a synonym for their practices

Vanilla – a term commonly used by fetishists and SM practitioners for non-kinky folk

Queer – umbrella term for people who are non-heterosexual or gender binary

 

When I was seven years old, my mother found a story – starring myself – that I’d written to fulfil my emerging platonic D/s and bondage fantasies. It was an immensely embarrassing experience for me, and clearly disturbing for her. An incredibly awkward confrontation followed; I remember thinking something along the lines of “Oh fuck, you’ve finally been caught out!” I hastily fabricated an unconvincing excuse about taking inspiration from a school project (I’m surprised my mother didn’t immediately withdraw me from school following that revelation), but the mortification was imprinted on my developing submissive brain for years afterwards. I found myself imagining that something was wrong with me. Perhaps I should have read Foucault, who would have reassured me that “power is not evil…to wield power over the other in a sort of open-ended strategic game where the situation may be reversed is not evil; it’s past of love, of passion and sexual pleasure…”.[1] Yet historically, the prevailing psychological discourse on SM has tended to agree with the seven-year-old me; perceptions of, and discourse surrounding, kink are still fraught with stigma and misconceptions. Recognition of SM as an orientation would go some way towards actively countering this stigma, protecting SM participants, and opening up healthy fetishistic avenues to those who might not otherwise be able to, or know how to, enjoy them.

In 1886 the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing published the highly influential psychiatric manual Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie, which attempted to highlight and categorise numerous sexual practices. Influenced by the prejudices and standards of acceptability of his time, Krafft-Ebing compiled an extensive list of disorders that included homosexuality and SM. He considered sex for non-reproductive purposes perverse and saw women as too passive to be fetishists.[2] One might wonder what our relationship to sexuality and mental health would be were it not for Psychopathia Sexualis. The more modern Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1974, following protests from gay rights activists (although ‘sexual orientation disturbance’ remained for a number of years); in a reflection of the stigma that still surrounds kink and its practices, the DSM still classifies some elements of SM as “paraphilic disorders”, although their de facto stance is that “atypical sexual interests” are healthy. The exceptions outlined in the 2013 Fifth Edition are circumstances under which the patient “feels[s] personal distress about their interest, not merely distress resulting from society’s disapproval” or has “a sexual desire or behaviour that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviours involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent”.[3] Although the former criterion is clearly problematic (switch ‘SM’ for ‘homosexuality’; would a gay person be classed as having a paraphilic disorder if he found it difficult to come to terms with his sexuality, but not as a result of social stigma?), the latter would sound more reasonable if consensual SM activity was not frequently prosecuted. The law states that in most cases you cannot consent to being hurt, and many aspects of consensual SM play are punishable under UK and US law; it is illegal to leave a lasting mark on someone else’s body, a textbook example of lazy law-making that actively stigmatises and penalises those who are trying to practise their sexuality.

There have been at least four prosecutions of SM practitioners in the UK since 1990, including the Spanner Case, when five men were jailed for giving each other consensual beatings, lacerations and genital abrasions for sexual pleasure. It led to the establishment of the Spanner Trust, which seeks to defend the rights of SM practitioners and change the UK court ruling that made consensual SM activities illegal. Out or ‘outed’ kinky people are often extremely disadvantaged in child custody cases[4], and kinky people entering therapy regularly face stigma because of their sexuality.[5] According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom’s 2013 survey, 82% of kinky people feel that society doesn’t accept them. The effects of societal stigma are startling: Brame’s survey of almost 7000 kinky people, although scientifically sketchy – especially when its rather limited questioning criteria are taken into account – found that 23% of them have “definitely” felt guilty or ashamed about their sexual desires; 4% have considered suicide; 14% are not out to anyone, including lovers or close friends.[6] She also noted that 20% of respondents had at some point tried to give up their SM/fetish interests to be more “normal”, although it is difficult to tell whether social stigma was an underlying factor in all cases.

Some sex therapists genuinely believe that people who are sexually aroused by non-sex related stimuli are displaying forms of pathological behaviour, but Peggy Kleinplatz questions the nature of sexual purpose itself and those who feel they have the authority to dictate it. She accuses psychologists of perpetuating a “pernicious process about a particular set of social mores being disguised in scientific jargon and harnessed to further sexual oppression…all too often such judgements are moral – not scientific in nature”, citing examples of someone who dislikes missing their morning workout and someone “who progresses from sailing a boat down a river to circumnavigating the globe” to illustrate societal double standards.[7] Why is it that some interests are allowed to be addictive or intensive but not others? The struggle for SM rights is depressingly similar to the debate surrounding queerness that raged amongst academic and feminist circles a few decades ago. There is no real scientific evidence that practising kink is caused by a physical or mental disease; nor is there any evidence that it is inherently harmful or traumatising. More outdated academic attempts to explain SM tendencies, such as that of Roy Baumeister some 25 years ago, often conclude that masochism is a form of escapism, “a systematic attempt to eradicate (temporarily) the main features of the self”.[8] This holds water, but there is little empirical evidence to support his theory that the masochist loses self-awareness during SM play, which, I would argue, is a misconception. It is not uncommon for submissives to experience an increased sense of self-awareness during intense scenes of pain and humiliation as they explore deeper, often unexplained elements of their psyche. Baumeister, at least, was careful to emphasise that he did not intend “to stigmatise or condemn masochism”, although whether his paper truly avoided stigmatising and condemning masochism is debatable. [9]

It was unfortunate, although unsurprising, that the queer liberation movement of the 1970s saw many writers trying to distance queerness from kink, presenting the former as a healthy sexual orientation worthy of protection and the latter as a sociopathic disorder. The “sex wars” of feminism were to a large extent wrapped up in issues of SM and intersectionality. The radical feminist anthology Against Sadomasochism, published in 1982, slammed SM practices as a product of “patriarchal sexual ideology”,[10] although it must be remembered that radical feminist theory in America around that time generally saw lesbianism as a liberating political act, a sort of “decolonization of the body”,[11] and rejected biological determinism. It would therefore have been far more plausible to them that SM be wholly influenced by external factors, especially as in many cases it seemed to mirror real-life violence and oppression. Radical feminism now tends towards acceptance of ‘innate’ lesbianism, but kink is still ostracised in most radical feminist circles, along with sex work and, in some cases, trans* identities. Historically, gay rights advocates have focused on queerness as an innate sexual orientation, in response to opponents who portray it as a deviant lifestyle choice that could be eradicated, although some feminists and many social conservatives still do not subscribe to the ‘innateness’ theory. This makes the relationship between queerness and kink even more complex and fraught, despite evidence that suggests SM practitioners are more likely to be queer: Kolmes, Stock and Moser found in 2006 that over 50% of their survey participants identified as non-heterosexual.[12] In a survey of 24/7 slaves carried out in the same year by Dancer, Kleinplatz and Moser, roughly 60% of respondents identified as queer.[13] It is also worth noting that, in the same year, Cross and Matheson found that kinky people had slightly more pro-feminist leanings than their control group;[14] other studies have not discovered any correlation between women’s feminist values and their sexual fantasies. In short, there is no evidence that kinky people are not as feminist as their vanilla counterparts.

Research subjects themselves have often been the most vehement advocates of theories of ‘innateness’ within kink. Krafft-Ebing was told by a heterosexual male masochist (Case 57) that

…masochism, according to my experience, is under all circumstances congenital, and never acquired by the individual…as long as I have been capable of thinking, I have had such thoughts. If the origin of them had been the result of a particular event, especially of a beating, I should certainly not have forgotten it. It is characteristic that the ideas were present before there was any libido. At that time the ideas were absolutely sexless.[15]

Sexologist Dr Charles Moser reported similar findings in a court testimony.[16] Psychologists from Freud to Kinsey have suggested that human sexuality can be learned and conditioned, but the reality is more complex and nuanced. It is not uncommon for SM practitioners to claim that they have always been kinky: 43% of participants in Yost and Hunter’s 2012 study claimed that their SM sexuality was innate, compared to 35% who believed that their interest was influenced by outside factors.[17] I count myself as an example of the former category, having first had platonic thoughts about kink before patriarchy was really perceptible to me. I felt ashamed of and confused about my thoughts for a number of years before finally discovering the SM community, a world of acceptance, at the age of fifteen. The expectation, however, that you must have always ‘known’ you were kinky to consider it a valid part of your sexual orientation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; it’s not uncommon, after all, for queers to discover their preferences later on in life – and the fact that queerness may not be genetic does not invalidate its status as an orientation.

And what of modern depictions of kink in the vanilla world, in which humans rely increasingly on popular forms of media to convey information about sex and its associative practices? The lazy and predictable association drawn between kinkiness and past abuse or mental illness in the relatively few contemporary fictional depictions of SM relationships out there is arguably far more harmful for SM’s image than a classification in the DSM. Lee Holloway in the popular soft kink film Secretary is a sexually masochistic recovering self-harmer who has just been released from a psychiatric unit; Christian Grey in the nauseatingly ubiquitous 50 Shades of Grey suffered abuse as a child, revealed when he projects his hatred of his mother onto Ana. He also violates the principles of Risk Aware Consensual Kink on numerous occasions, but one mustn’t let the dullness of positive, realistic depictions of SM and its practitioners get in the way of a scandalous story. E. L. James and Steven Shainberg would do well to take note of the findings of a 2008 study that concluded SM-practising participants were no more likely to have been abused or coerced into sexual activity, and were not much more likely to feel unhappy or anxious, than their vanilla counterparts.[18]

The implications of thinking about SM as a sexual orientation are potentially significant and far-reaching. It would help dispel the myth that SM is proof of emotional trauma or an abusive childhood and that people can be ‘treated’ for it; it would go some way towards protecting SM practitioners against prejudice and discrimination; it would encourage awareness and understanding of SM practices; it could even provoke a change in the law over the treatment of those who engage in consensual SM play. The American Psychological Association speaks proudly of its record on disassociating queerness with mental illness;[19] a validation of SM as an orientation amongst the psychiatric community could hypothetically lead to a future endorsement from the APA, a huge step towards destigmatisation. But there is perhaps something inherently problematic about the argument that something should be accepted because it is innate. Kink, whether practiced as occasional experimentalism or as a significant and long-standing part of a person’s sexuality, has the potential to be an intensely liberating mode of exploration, as articulated by Kleinplatz:

Whereas many couples are willing to settle for merely functional sex, SM practitioners may be more interested in contact that necessitates intense, erotic connection; sophisticated communication of subtle differences in intent; and eventuates in profound self-knowledge and transcendent levels of intimacy.[20]

As an SM practitioner with no interest in vanilla sex, I find Kleinplatz’s analysis convincing. The mechanics of sex are not enough for me; climax is never the ending, highlight, or purpose of a sexual encounter. My numerous vanilla sexual experiences have always been somewhat unsatisfying and anticlimactic; my masturbatory fantasies focus around kink, usually not involving sexual activity but always sexually stimulating. My successful SM encounters with others are highly charged forms of expression, intimacy and mutual respect. I occupy a different space to vanilla people. I will campaign against the stigmatisation of my sexuality as long as its practitioners are still shamed, stereotyped and ostracised for it. SM is not yet recognised as a valid part of someone’s sexual psyche, only as an element of sexual expression and deviance – and, according to the DSM, it can even be a pathological disorder. The American Psychological Association defines a sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes” and “a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviours, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions”.[21] Is it not possible, then, for SM practitioners to have an enduring pattern of attractions to those who share their fetishes? Is kink not considered an identity by many of the people who practise it? Are there not thriving kink communities across the world that organise events and socials around their shared sexual interests? My theory, that SM tendencies can be classified using an equivalent to the Kinsey scale, would suggest that, much like queerness, kink is a spectrum, with those who enjoy both kink and vanilla sex considered loosely equivalent to bisexuals.

We conceptualise sexuality through ‘orientations’. For many SM practitioners, applying this label to kink would be a helpful way of coming to terms with, and validating, their desires – and it would undoubtedly be an improvement on the current classification of elements of consensual SM as a pathological disorder. But labels can be limiting and reductive if leaned on too heavily; centuries of stigma do not evaporate with the altering of a definition. No, we must look beyond the label and cast aside our prejudices in an attempt to realise the abundant erotic and emotionally liberating potential of kink – or, as Kleinplatz says, “to discover the transformative potential of intense erotic intimacy”.[22]

 

 

Footnotes

[1] M. Foucault (1984), ‘The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom’ (trans. R Hurley and others), in Rabinow, P (ed.) Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth: The Essential Works of Michael Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1 (Penguin Press, 1997)

[2] R. von Krafft-Ebing (1886), Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin Klaf (Arcade, 1965)

[3] American Psychiatric Association (2013), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (American Psychiatric Publishing)

[4] C. Moser & M. Klein (2006), ‘SM (Sadomasochistic) Interests as an Issue in a Child Custody Proceeding’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[5] K. Kolmes, Wendy Stock & Charles Moser (2006), ‘Investigating bias in psychotherapy with BDSM clients’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[6] G. Brame (2000), Come Hither: A Commonsense Guide to Kinky Sex (Fireside)

[7] P. Kleinplatz (2006), ‘Learning from extraordinary lovers: Lessons from the edge’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[8] R. Baumeister (1988), ‘Masochism as Escape from Self’ in The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 28-59

[9] Ibid

[10] T. Murphy (2000), Reader’s Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers)

[11] C. Clarke (1981), ‘Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance’ in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour, ed. C. Moraga & G. Andalzua (Kitchen Table Press, 1983)

[12] K. Kolmes, W. Stock & C. Moser (2006), ‘Investigating bias in psychotherapy with BDSM clients’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[13] P. Dancer, P. Kleinplatz & C. Moser (2006), ’24/7 SM Slavery’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[14] P. Cross & K. Matheson (2006), ‘Understanding Sadomasochism’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[15] R. von Krafft-Ebing (1886), Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin Klaf (Arcade Publishing, 1965)

[16] N. Barsotti (2009), ‘BDSM lifestyler unfit to drive a limo: police’, available at: http://dailyxtra.com/vancouver/news/bdsm-lifestyler-unfit-drive-limo-police

[17] M. Yost & L. Hunter (2012), ‘BDSM practitioners’ understandings of their initial attraction to BDSM sexuality: essentialist and constructionist narratives’ in Paychology and Sexuality, 3.3, 244-259

[18] J. Richters et al (2008), ‘Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, “sadomasochism” or dominance and submission (BDSM): data from a national survey’ in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, vol. 5, issue 7, pp. 1660-1668

[19] American Psychological Association (2008), ‘Sexual orientation and homosexuality’, available at: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/sexual-orientation.aspx

[20] P. Kleinplatz (2006), ‘Learning from extraordinary lovers: Lessons from the edge’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

[21] American Psychological Association (2008), ‘Sexual orientation and homosexuality’, available at: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/sexual-orientation.aspx

[22] P. Kleinplatz (2006), ‘Learning from extraordinary lovers: Lessons from the edge’ in Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (2/3)

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