Not all of the works I plan on exploring in The Celluloid Dungeon will have BDSM as a primary or even secondary theme. Some will have BDSM in a single scene or even a single moment.
Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, a 1989 crime thriller starring Charles Bronson, is not a good film, by most standards. It’s mainly about an older racist cop, Lt. Crowe (Bronson), harassing and brutalizing non-white people in Los Angeles in pursuit of an exploitative pimp, Duke. That story is awkwardly spliced with another story about a Japanese salaryman, Hada, who moves with his wife and two daughters to Los Angeles. Hada’s elder daughter, Fumiko, somewhere in her early teens, is kidnapped, raped multiple times (offscreen, thankfully) and pimped out, before Crowe rescues her.
Videodrome (IMDB) is a 1983 science fiction/thriller film written and directed by David Cronenberg, and starring James Woods and Deborah Harry.
- I’m old enough to remember how different and exciting the Internet was in the 1990s. So does Violet Blue, who lays out just much has changed for the worse since then, especially with the censoring of Tumblr last year. “I can tell you for a fact that Tumblr helped a generation of frightened, isolated kids trying to figure out their sexual identity.” Her essay on Engadget.
- David Wraith has an overview of how terrible the SESTA/FOSTA laws are, stifling freedom of expression on sexual matters while subjecting sex workers to greater danger.
- On the brighter side, England has reviewed its obscenity laws and a number of kinks, including spanking, BDSM, and female ejaculation, are now okay in porn, as long as they are shown as consensual.
- Kink Guidelines is a project “to explore what constitutes clinical best practices in working with those who are interested and/or involved in kink, BDSM, and/or fetish eroticism.
- The city leaders of San Francisco have approved the construction of Eagle Plaza, a small park commemorating the Eagle bar’s contribution to the LGBTQ and leather/kink cultures.
- Lupercalia, the ancient Roman festival that loosely corresponds to Valentine’s Day, was known for men playfully whipping women “believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy”, according to Plutarch. Today, whipping rituals are a part of fertility festivals in parts of Europe, Mexico and Asia. From Vice.
- Even though Walmart, regular drugstores and other mainstream retailers now stock vibrators and other sex toys, sex products are still caught up in controversy. Producers risk rejection from retailers, payment processors, crowdsourcing platforms, and advertising venues. Sex toys have to toe the line of being for “health and wellness”, not for pleasure, which would be prurient. The Verge has more.
- Puppyplay for gay kinksters seems to be on the rise lately, and Slate has a profile of a San Francisco polyamorous pack.
- Kerrang has a list of BDSM-themed songs, including the classic “Venus in Furs” by Velvet Underground.
Payback (IMDB) is a 1999 neo-noir crime thriller, starring Mel Gibson.
In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo talked about the phase of American movies in which queer film characters existed mainly as dramatic or comedic foils to the straight characters. Whether they were swishy nellies or twisted sadists, they were a simple object lesson in proper and improper gender roles. That extends to the present day, though perhaps a little less overt: heroes are associated with heterosexuality, monogamy, vanilla sex, and other normative sexualities, while villains tend towards bisexuality, non-monogamy, and fetishes and kinks.
Tightrope (IMDB) is a 1984 thriller starring Clint Eastwood and Genevieve Bujold. It’s very much of the “woman in peril” genre: New Orleans detective Wes Block (Eastwood) tracks a killer of sex workers.
Lindemann, Danielle J. 2012. Dominatrix: gender, eroticism, and control in the dungeon. Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
“Professional dominatrix” is an archetype that attracts attention out of proportion to the number of people who actually fit that description. For many, they are the symbol of BDSM in general, a representation of the perversity of men, simultaneously attractive and absurd. Are they trickster courtesans manipulating men via their weaknesses, or just another type of sex worker?
Lindemann’s book is a sociological study of professional dominatrixes, based on extensive interviews with pro dommes and their clients in New York City and San Francisco (probably the two largest concentrations of pro dommes in the USA). She spoke with both house of domination employees and independents. Her driving question is, what does professional domination, a small, highly stylized subculture, tell us about the rest of the world. She references Judith Butler’s studies of drag, an exaggeration that highlights an underlying truth. [Pg.10]
This book goes beyond some of the cliches about BDSM and pro domination, particularly the cliche that “the submissive has all the power”. Her interviews with pro dommes and client describe a delicate and nuanced struggle for control between the two parties. [Pg.33] Some pros say they are in control of the scenario, while others view it as more collaborative, even if their persona is the imperious queen. Lindemann describes several “cognitive strategies” pros use to manage this ambiguity, such as “the hustle” or the concept of “getting over” used by street vendors, the belief that despite all appearances, they are the ones who come out ahead of the transaction. [Pg.35] In the case of pros who work in houses of domination, there’s a third party with its own agenda in the equation.[Pg.38]
The “professional” part of professional dominatrix is how pro dommes construct their identity as an elite subset of sex workers, who might deny that they are sex workers at all, or at least exploit a legal loophole to work within the letter of the law. While apparent inexperience might enhance the appeal of a stripper or escort, a domme is supposed to be perfect, a mistress of her field.[Pg.72] Claims of training and experience create a mystique of authenticity. Ideally, a pro domme is supposed to do this as a calling, like an art form. To say “I’m just doing this to pay for dental school.” would spoil the experience[Pg.71, 85] One pro distinguished herself from other “hoochie dommes”: “They are contributing to the deterioration of the honor of what being a domme is.” (emphasis in original) [Pg.86] This is why, for instance, dommes who practice financial domination are viewed with suspicion and disdain by “purists”, who view findom as requiring no skill or artistry.
The other side of this equation is the client, who are trained by the BDSM culture of munches, Fetlife, online ads, etc.[Pg.60] Some clients willingly buy into the mystique of the all-powerful domme, which paradoxically desexualizes the women. By viewing these women as untouchable and asexual, the clients manage their emotional intimacy.[Pg. 113]
The space of the dungeon allows the exploration of alternate gender identities, but always in tension with the roles of the rest of the world. While pro dommes may cultivate the image of la belle dame sans merci, a taboo form of aggressive femininity, in interviews they often describe what they do as a kind of therapy, conforming to the role of woman-as-nurturer-of-men.[Pg.128, 144] This justification suggests that men’s masochistic and submissive desires are pathological, and pro dommes are doing the “work” of sustaining men in their normative sexuality and gender roles. [Pg. 147, 151] This folk belief gives the dommes a benefit too, allowing the expression of an uber-bitch role while being, underneath, a good, caring woman. They can move between different feminine archetypes. Certain subtypes of female domination strongly emphasize the quasi-maternal, nurturing roles of “mother”, “auntie”, “governess”, or “nurse”. (Lindemann suggest this is why the dynamic between dommes and their few female clients is very different; these client have no social power to reverse.[Pg.161]) BDSM may play with conventional gender roles, but it can’t completely escape them. [Pg.168]
The book ends with a woefully short, two-page historical background. Lindemann’s research says that “dominatrix”, in the BDSM sense, first appears in 1967, in The Bizarre Lovemakers, by Bruce Rogers. “Dungeon”, in the BDSM sense, goes back to 1974, in a classified ad in the Los Angeles Free Press. [Pg. 200] Though the terms “dominatrix” and “dungeon” are pretty new, there’s plenty of evidence that women provided professional domination services in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lindemann could have provided even a brief reference to Ian Gibson’s The English Vice. This is a personal quibble from a historian’s perspective on a fascinating and informative book.
The paradox of the “bitchy nurturer” put me in mind of Hannah Cullwick, and how Arthur Munby was fascinated by the strength and roughness of her body while emphasizing the sweetness and gentleness of her nature. We know that there were a lot of ageplay elements of their relationship, with him sitting on her lap or being carried. Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather talked a lot about the “two mothers” of the Victorian bourgeois home, the “wife” and the “maid”. In our own time, there are still divides between good women and bad women, and the narrative of the “bitchy nurturer” allows us to accept this apparent paradox. The dominatrix may appear to be the polar opposite of the housewife, but they both do emotional labor for men. This rationale turns up in many narratives of fictional dommes, such as Lady Heather in CSI: Las Vegas.
- The Divine Deviance documentary, in which I am a contributor, is holding another round of fundraising. Even a small contribution can help make this valuable documentary possible.
- The University of Guelph is running an anonymous survey on kinky people and their relationships.
- In the UK, BDSM is still technically illegal, ever since the case of Brown 1993, also known as the Operation Spanner case. Samantha Pegg, a criminal law lecturer, discusses the possible legal reform regarding BDSM, while still emphasizing that consent should not negate all legal liability.
- Cosmopolitan UK has a frank discussion of a woman’s involvement in BDSM as a way of processing her earlier rape.
- Narratively has a feature on an AA meeting held in the basement of a fetish shop in NYC, and addresses the difficulty of kinky people hiding or revealing their kink in therapy or recovery settings. Starting in the 1950s, Alcoholics Anonymous refused to list gay meetings in their literature. This policy did not change until 1974. It’s also important to remember that a lot of NYC kink venues in the 1980s had a lot of liquor and drugs around.
- Modern Meadow is a biotech company pioneering a kind of artificially-grown leather. Instead of a plastic like pleather, this is an organic material grown in a factory. This has several advantages over conventional leather production: less environmental impact from caustic substances, less animal cruelty, and it can be grown in large sheets to order. How this compares to conventional leather in terms of fetish or fashion remains to be seen. “Modern Meadow is not… actually out to ape leather. Rather, the firm’s aim is to produce a new material in its own right, complete with brand name.” The company’s line of materials is called Zoa. Perhaps some future generation of fetishists will prefer it to leather.
- Slave Play, by Jeremy O. Harris, is a dramatic look at possibly the most emotionally and culturally charged form of kink: raceplay. Three couples (two hetero, one gay male) flipflop between antebellum fantasies of racial domination and modern scenes of couples arguing. Interview with the playwright (video)
- We’re facing a new rising tide of online censorship in online communities like Tumblr and Facebook. Gloria Brame has a few tips on surviving this. Race Bannon discusses how, like it or not, social networks like Tumblr and Facebook have replace physical gathering spaces for connecting, organizing and discussing our sexualities. The moral panic over sex trafficking has led to SESTA/FOSTA and the subsequent restrictions on social networks, as covered by Cookie Cyboid on Medium.
- The mainstreaming of (a heteronormative subset of) kink in the form of Fifty Shades Darker coincided with Fetlife deleting a large amount of images and groups, and Kink.com moving out of the Armory building in San Francisco. MEL magazine covers the economic and social fortunes of the kink world.
- Waterboarding as a form of torture goes back at least to the Spanish Inquisition, but I would hazard there’s been an increased interest from the kink community in the last couple of decades. It’s been banned by the United Nations and classified as torture by the UN, and the US government has forbidden it. That adds an additional element of taboo to this technique, which would explain its popularity with certain edge players. It’s also more dangerous than some people think. Rolling Stone covers the controversy.
A Lover’s Pinch is a deep dive that goes far beyond Leopold von Sacher-Masoch the Marquis de Sade. Admittedly, I wasn’t expected to read analyses of how religion, war, and slavery impacted our sexualities (and relevant imagery is included on some pages), but the author of this book is not afraid to broach those subjects.
I wouldn’t say that tricky subjects aren’t handled with care within these pages or that it’s un-PC, but the tone is sometimes decidedly frank. If you’re especially religious or still experience trauma from war or slavery, then A Lover’s Pinch might not be a book you wish to pick up (or you may wish to skip those specific chapters).
I got started on the Internet in the early 1990s, when every session was preceded by the squeal of an acoustic modem over a phone line, and USENET was the cutting edge of interaction. I loved it. USENET was a decentralized, public system that didn’t really have an owner or a central control. The USENET group alt.sex.bondage was a major influence on my budding interest in BDSM. The Internet seemed like a wide-open utopia/frontier of freedom and choice, where I could find like-minded people.
I knew that there were racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites, etc out there, spewing out their hatred, but also assumed these were sad little men in small dark rooms who didn’t pose a serious threat to anybody. (Being a white, cis, hetero male was definitely part of this assumption.) Child pornography was, I read, a bogeyman for people who wanted to censor for the sake of censoring. Free speech was an almost unequivocal good.
Fast forward more than twenty years, past high-speed internet, Youtube, Facebook, Google, Gamergate, Sad/Rabid Puppies, 4chan, ironic racism, pick up artists, MGTOWs, incels, revenge porn, etc. Those sad little men networked and became a force that has dragged North American society hard to the right. This also coincided with a terrifying rise in right wing demonstrations and violence.
As of the end of 2018, there has been at least some pushback against the alt-right. People who have committed hate crimes have been prosecuted under the law. Media figures like Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopolis and Gavin McInnes have been kicked off major platforms like Youtube and Twitter and barred from venues, a tactic known as “de-platforming”.
I was never 100% comfortable with the concept of de-platforming, which to me had an unpleasantly Newspeak overtone. “It’s not censorship, it’s de-platforming.” But I’ll be honest and say that, despite my commitment to free speech, I wasn’t going to go to the barricades for the likes of McInnes, Jones and Yiannopolis.
One of the big takeaways from Slavoj Zizek’s two films explaining his theory of ideology (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) is that ideologies don’t require all of their followers to have sincere belief. A successful ideology can accommodate people who know how to toe the party line, say the phrases, wear the uniform, and smugly congratulate themselves on being ahead of the game, all the while contributing to the machine. Whether they were true believers or hucksters/trolls, the end result was the same: an endless flood of hatred, paranoia and self-righteousness, into the eyes and ears of people who had a limitless appetite for it. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if the recipients are hardcore white supremacists or misogynists or anti-Semites, or they just get off on the transgression, they’re still propagating it. The best way to curtail such people is to attack them where it hurts: their bottom lines.
That’s why I didn’t object to the de-platforming very much: because North America and Europe are seething with racial, gendered and religious violence, and I didn’t know what else to do about it. Something had to be done to reign it in. Even if you don’t believe in the “monkey-see-monkey-do” model of the media’s influence on the individual’s actions, such tactics at least sent a message regarding what was acceptable discourse. If that had even a slight chance of preventing another Pulse nightclub shooting or Toronto van attack, go for it.
The idea that media creates and propagates a culture, and certain percentage of recipients of that media will do physical violence, is straight out of the second-wave radical feminist arguments against pornography and sadomasochism. Which puts me in a bit of a bind.
The changes in content rules on Tumblr (coming into effect December 17, 2018) and Facebook (soon) are driven by the “anti-trafficking” ideology that gave use SESTA/FOSTA. Going into the history and flaws of that legislation would require an in-depth article itself, but they’ve already caused problems for sex workers, and people who discuss sexual issues.
Personally, these changes will cause problems for me. As of December 15th, 2018, I have 2,790 followers on Tumblr, 223 followers on the Facebook group and 233 followers on Pinterest, and no way to transfer them to other platforms. They are major assets for promoting A Lover’s Pinch and other future projects. I especially liked how I could set up automatic daily updates on Tumblr and then have them repeated on Twitter via IFTT. While I was never a huge user of Tumblr, especially not for personal material, I liked scrolling through feeds and reading the freewheeling, queer and quirky stuff. I know it had its own problems with hateful content. I read the “raceplay” tag a few times and, as I read, I kept thinking, “You’re just kidding, right? This is all just rhetorical?”
It’s not a good look to shrug when other people are de-platformed with “Well, they had it coming,” and then cry when it happens to me.
The philosopher Karl Popper wrote about the “paradox of tolerance” in 1945, right after seeing the global violence of fascism.
In other words, we have to draw the line somewhere. But where? I know where I would draw it, but that’s a solution only for me.
I could pile up the word count hashing out this debate, but the real problem is that this is an issue outside of politics. Tumblr, Facebook, etc, are private corporations. They exist to benefit their shareholders, and any other benefits are only incidental. Thus, they can impose whatever content regulations they like. Whatever communities users may have built on those platforms, they never belonged to their users. The real problem is the influence of capital on our discourse, at multiple levels.
One of the things that suck about getting older is that you have to see the revolution you believed in falter and be assimilated or even corrupted. The online communities of hatred (of women, non-whites, queer people, trans people, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and so on) (and their parasitic profiteers) festering on the Internet in 2018 are a twisted, degraded reflection of the communities of acceptance and diversity that flourished on the Internet of 1998. (Please make allowances for rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia.) The Internet was supposed to be a path to utopia.
I don’t know what will happen to my blog on Tumblr Monday, or what will happen on other platforms in the years to come. Will there be some kind of cultural conservative backlash, a return to the middle after the excesses of the extremes? That bodes ill, not just for online communites, but for society in general.
- The big issue is the spread of Internet censorship, starting with Tumblr’s ban on adult content starting December 17th, 2018. The Verge says this will probably be the end of a unique, diverse and vibrant sex positive culture, such as a woman’s self-published nudes. Even before then, Tumblr was flagging completely innocuous posts as adult content. Wired has more details. While this may not be targeted at women’s sexuality, it will probably come down hardest on that.
- Engadget covers Facebook’s own crackdown on sexual speech.
- Perhaps paradoxically, Marcus K Dowling writes that kink is poised to explode into the mainstream in much the same way as porn exploded in the 1970s.
- As I’ve dug deeper into the silent film era in search of the proto-dominatrix and the roots of fetish fashion, I found that a certain image I and many other people thought was of Musidora in her famous Irma Vep black catsuit was actually someone else entirely, from a Musidora-inspired photo shoot. The perils of uncredited images.
- The Conversation documents the moral panic about sadism in 1930s Australia, and how this ended up doing a disservice to victims of violence.
- Margaret Cho is producing a web series about a queer, Asian-American, professional and lifestyle dominatrix, called Mercy Mistress. First episode on Youtube.