Nov 082015
 

Weiss, Margot. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Duke University Press, 2011. Amazon

You can get an idea of how thought-provoking I found Weiss’ book was by the sheer density of post-its as bookmarks.

Side view of Weiss' Techniques of Pleasure, with many post-its

Side view of Weiss’ Techniques of Pleasure, with many post-its

Unlike some other outsiders who pass superficial judgements on the BDSM subculture, Weiss (Assistant Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan) definitely did her homework. Her book is based on a combination of in-depth interviews with people in the Scene (including notables like Mollena Williams and Midori) and extensive participant observation.

Weiss’ book is also focused on the San Francisco Scene, which was largely the incubator of the modern, North American BDSM scene. She looks at the specific history of the area, how San Francisco became home to a variety of gay subcultures, including the leatherman/old guard subculture. The city’s gentrification, driven in large part by decimation of the gay community by HIV in the 1980s and the tech boom of the 1990s, broke this community.

This came the new guard: middle-class, white, straight or bi, tech-oriented, steeped in the California culture of self-cultivation, and incubated in alt.sex.bondage instead of leather bars. As Weiss points out, the first Munch in the early 1990s was promoted solely through the Internet: no flyers, newspaper advertisements or other media. If you weren’t wired, you never would have known it happened.

From that perspective, the “new guard’s” valorization of the “old guard” as a source of authenticity and authority is a kind of colonial nostalgia: you yearn for something you destroyed, and create a sanitized version to replace it.

This is of course a simplification of a much more complex process, as there was a heterosexual community in California at the time, going back at least to the founding of the Society of Janus in the mid-1970s. I believe that, had HIV never occurred, that the most of the same changes would have happened. The apprentice educational model of the old gay leather culture could not have scaled up to meet the demand of more and more people.

Regardless of the causes, there was a definite shift in the way the BDSM culture functioned since the first aboveground organizations (like TES and SOJ) were founded in the early 1970s to the present post-Fetlife period.

Weiss’ key concept is neoliberalism. As Barbara Ehrenreich et al. pointed out in Re-making Love, BDSM is the perfect form of sexuality for a capitalist/consumerist society: it requires not only costumes and equipment, but educational courses and access to semi-private or private spaces. The deeper you want to go into the lifestyle, the more it costs in equipment, attire, party tickets, munch food and beverage bills, travel and accommodation expenses for big conferences, baby sitter bills, having a separate room in your house, etc, not to mention the time expense of attending workshops, or working as a volunteer to gain entrance to events. It’s harder for some people to get into that charmed circle than others.

Over the past two decades, the reach of the Internet has grown immensely, and a far broader selection of people use it, but it is still skewed towards the wealthy, the white, the middle-class and the able-bodied. Since, at least in California, the Scene is so heavily influenced by digital culture, it’s hardly surprising that the Scene would inherit some of the values, and some of the problems.

In part, it comes down to money. This is a difficult, if not impossible, lifestyle to participate in if you are poor. I considered the idea of anti-materialist BDSM: no toys, just psychology and bare-hand techniques like wrestling, spanking, punching, nerve strikes, etc. I’m not sure it would have much traction: kinksters tend to really like their toys (which is kind of the point of Weiss’ critique). Plus you’d still have to take classes to learn how to do it. OTOH, perhaps the concept of “rough sex” is anti-materialist BDSM.

The resources issue ties into other endemic crises in the BDSM community: questions of authority and belonging, and questions of access.

A player with the money to spend can own a steamer-trunk full of high-end equipment and a Thierry Mugler original outfit, and still have no idea how to play well or safely, while a veteran player can have an outfit scraped together from thrift stores (or no outfit at all) and a toybag put together from stuff bought at dollar stores. Likewise, there is disagreement about what is and isn’t safe, or safe enough. Some say the degree of risk in breath control play is acceptable, others say it is not.

One of the perennial topics of discussion in kink circles is, where are all the people of colour? Weiss expands on that question to ask why the Scene is so predominantly white and middle-class, and why the heterosexual Scene is so segregated from the lesbian and gay male Scenes.

The BDSM Scene’s claims that it is a bubble world where sexism, racism, classism, etc don’t exist, except as freely chosen play. If an African-American woman like Mollena Williams or an Asian-American woman like Midori steps into that charmed circle, is it always race-play, or only some of the time? Can a person’s race be shed at the dungeon door? Weiss says no. For an African-American person to enter that charmed circle requires an extra step, and many do not consider it worth that extra step. They do not have the historical distance from slavery that white Americans people have. This may be analogous to African-American men on the “down low”, who have sex with other men but don’t identify as homosexual. The existence of “men on the down low” indicates a flaw in the modern conception of “homosexual”, that the category cannot entirely transcend race.

I’ve noticed this, a tendency to believe that the Scene is within the Internet, or even just within Fetlife, and there’s no point in reaching beyond that. To reach beyond that the expense and hassle of making flyers and posters and the legwork of getting out and posting them. Back in my tenure on the board of Metro Vancouver Kink, I was the communications coordinator and publicist. I made sure that MVK events were promoted via website, mailing list, Fetlife and Facebook, and also that we printed posters and flyers and distributed them. I admit that the meat-space promotional efforts didn’t go far beyond the adult and fetishwear stores in the downtown core of Vancouver, and there were large areas of the suburbs where there were no flyers. It’s a lot easier to just click “Send”.

What redeems Weiss’ book from being only a progressive critique of the BDSM Scene’s less progressive aspects is that she understands that Scene creates the possibilities for pleasures and intimacies that are not possible any other way. In other words, it is worth it to get into that charmed circle, and more people should be allowed to get in.

I would urge anyone interested in the history or the future of the BDSM culture, whether researchers, educators, or organizers, to look into Weiss’ book. There are some uncomfortable criticisms about our culture, but they are things we have to look at and address if we as kinky people are going to move forward.

  One Response to “Review: Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, by Margot Weiss”

  1. […] Weiss’ book Techniques of Pleasure also covers this […]

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