Sep 202016
 

Ortmann, David M., and Richard A. Sprott. 2013. Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexualities and Communities Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Sexual Outsiders is primarily a guide for people in the helping professions (psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counsellors).

If you need to ask why this book is necessary, there is a problem of “therapy refugees”, people who have been unable to get therapy because they have been, or fear being, rejected for being kinky:

“After an off-hand comment made by the therapist about ‘those sick people who beat each other,’ I was put into a position of being unable to talk about any connections I had to BDSM. I also felt that it was unsafe to discuss that I was raped by a partner (which was something I needed to talk about) because we had been involved in a Dom/sub relationship.” [Pg.122-123]

In other words, anti-kink prejudice is a real social problem, with serious consequences. The general public, and specifically the helping professions, need to be educated on what BDSM is. In this regard, BDSM is somewhat behind the QUILTBAG communities, but on a similar trajectory, torn between staying in the closet and off the radar, or seeking help and the risk of being pathologized as they were in previous years, and still often are. Those who don’t seek help are termed “therapy refugees”, a term possibly coined by Dossie Easton.[Pg.6] I would argue that the police and legal system also needs comparable education, but that’s outside the purview of this book and this review.

Sexual Outsiders is mainly for non-kinky people. (Books like When Someone You Love Is Kinky are intended for kinky people.) The main goal is to humanize kinky people and to change professionals’ view of them.

Part of the mythology that we’re questioning is the prevailing cultural assumption that forms of sexuality that fall outside social, medical, or religious norms are pathological or unhealthy, by their very nature. In a binary view of human sexuality there is “normal” and “abnormal.” We are making a case for a much-less-polarized view of human sexuality, one that embraces a diversity of erotic expression. [Pg.4]

The problem is that, going back to the days of Krafft-Ebing and Freud, the discourse around non-normative sexualities is tilted towards pathologizing. That produces ignorance and prejudice, with a lack of real information.

Fields like sexology, sociology, and anthropology are further along in their investigations of BDSM sexuality and BDSM communities. Fields like psychology and psychiatry, however, are sill mired in previous assumptions and old theories that clearly make a lot of assumptions of sickness or illness as a starting point. Up until recently, most of the psychological and psychiatric studies were based on a single troubled person in a specific situation. Single case studies are great for raising questions to explore, but not appropriate for providing answers. It would be similar to describing Britney Spears’s Las Vegas costumes and then assuming that all young women dress in this fashion. Likewise, psychological and psychiatric studies of sexual predators or people suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder are primarily the basis for studies of “sadism.” These cases of people who are entangled in the criminal justice system can give a distorted view of the line between healthy and unhealthy sexuality. This forensic work, while important, can easily be misapplied to BDSM as practiced by healthy people in a vibrant subculture. [Pg.5]

Krafft-Ebing’s work was based on either people in the criminal justice system (generally lower class, violent offenders) or people who had come to him for mental problems. People like Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, who quietly played out their kinks in private, would never have been noticed by him. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who made no secret of his interests, was caught up in the Foucaultian power apparatus, so much that his name was used to label and pathologize an entire realm of human behaviour. Even before the Victorian era, one of the primary sources of information on kinksters was the proto-psychological literature of case studies, like Pico de la Mirandola’s account of a flagellant man, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. The discourse assumes a problem.

The fact that categories like Sexual Sadism, Sexual Masochism, and Fetishism exist in the DSM or International Classification of Diseases (ICD) doesn’t mean the science behind these diagnoses is clear or present.[Pg.8]

[…]

There are statements made in the DSM that if a person has one sexual disorder like Sexual Masochism (also called a Paraphilia, a clinical word for a sexual disorder or dysfunction), then they are at a higher risk for exhibiting other paraphilias– which include Pedophilia. However, there are very few studies to confirm this statement– and some of these empirical, scientific studies do no support the statement. The actual evidence doesn’t fit and there is no scientific consensus to back up that simple statement. Yet that statement is used by courts in both criminal and civil cases, as well as other institutions in our society. That idea pervades our public understanding of sexualities and can be used in a very punitive way.[Pg.9]

See Umni Khan’s Vicarious Kinks for examples of the consequences of this prejudice. It’s also harder to come up with demographics of kinkiness, because of the difficulty of defining it (beyond “I know it when I see it”.) [Pg.34-35]

There is an anti-kink stigma, and consequently there may need to be a “coming out process,” which may require help.

We argue that, for some people who feel that their BDSM sexuality is highly signficiant, they will need to go through a similar coming-out process. It may be necessary to guide and support kinky people as they “separate” and challenge the stigma, and it may be necessary to guide and support kinky people as they integrate a good, healthy BDSM identity as part of who they are as whole persons. [Pg.46-47]

On the other hand, there may be some resistance from kinky people to the idea of coming out of the closet and assimilation.

Part of the ongoing dialogue within these [BDSM] communities is the question about whether or not we should confront and challenge the larger society’s negative view points. Being “bad” is hot; the bad girls and the bad boys get all the fun. Engaging in forbidden and nasty behavior is hot. If you make BDSM acceptable and ordinary, integrated into society’s understanding of human sexuality, you erase the edge, the danger, and the excitement of being outside of society. [Pg. 48]

Ortmann and Sprott argue that “BDSM is neutral” [Pg.68], neither healthy nor unhealthy. It can be a means of healing or it can be self-destructive. In comparing BDSM with non-suicidal self-injury (e.g. self-cutting), they talk about their example clients who:

… used their community ties and community-endorsed BDSM techniques in a conscious effort to grow and heal, while may people who injure themselves, as in the practice of cutting, are often doing so in isolation and not trained to do so with safety. The communal context and the intention behind an act are incredibly signficant in judging the health of an action, even an action as intense as cutting or BDSM. In particular, the role of shame is crucial, as shame and embarassment often lead those who engage in self-injury to hide their behavior or motives for the behavior. In the case of using BDSM as healing, there is notably less shame about the behaviour or the motivations for the scene. [Pg.67-68]

This gave me pause for thought. The film Secretary normalizes BDSM through two methods. First, it depicts (male dominant, female submissive) BDSM as compatible with an otherwise conventional heterosexual romance plot. Second, it depicts BDSM as better and healthier than Lee’s self-injury (cutting and burning herself). Like many kinksters, I appreciated (with reservations) a positive depiction of BDSM in mainstream media. Later, I began to wonder about the message of Secretary. Is Lee’s self-injury necessarily “better” than her BDSM relationship with Mr. Grey? Is this comparable to the lingering idea that masturbation is necessarily inferior to sex with a partner? The film makes clear that Lee has a great deal of shame about her self-injury, internalized from her own family, and Mr. Grey’s equanimity about her self-injury does make a difference to her. Likewise, Mr. Grey is in the closet about his kinks (literally so, when what seems to be his ex-wife visits his office), and being in a non-judgmental relationship with Lee helps him too. But is it possible that Lee’s self-injury is her best way of managing her problems, and we should not accept the teleology that the solution to her problem lies in the “normality” of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage (even if it does include a dungeon in the basement)?

That said, I do think the BDSM community, for all its flaws, is valuable for disseminating information on technique and safety, and providing support, for its members. It’s a rare individual who can live completely without support from others.

Ortmann and Sprott take a Jungian view of human psychology, and view BDSM play as a way of exploring the Shadow and healing psychologically, though they take care to mention that this is not for everybody. However, this remain unexplored territory, because of the perennial difficulty in researching anything to do with sexuality.

Given that we don’t know a lot about the risks and dangers of particular BDSM practices, because no one will study or fund the research to answer those questions, the BDSM community must rely on its folk wisdom and anecdotes. But folk wisdom and anecdotes introduce quite a lot of variation, and, as a result, there are disagreements about how risky particular scenes are. A lack of knowledge makes community discussions around risk very difficult, but at least these discussions are farther along than the conversations found in medical and legal professions, or in mental healthcare.

The dynamic of shame within BDSM communities make the discussion of risk difficult. People within organized BDSM communities can be extremely sensitive to anyone saying no, that’s bad, or that’s too much. At first blush, such a statement sounds like rejection and shame. It is on the surface, as Alan Downs puts it, invalidating. In a subculture that adores the image of the rebel, the outsider, the one who flirts with danger and is Mistress or Master of their own domain (or serving someone who is), being told by others in the community that a particular practice is too risky and should not be done is fraught with conflict and tension. The BDSM community strongly resists anyone who claims authority without proof or evidence of experience and, even then, the authority’s expertise should be shared and not imposed. [Pg.81]

Witness the ongoing debate over the relative safety of breath control and other high-risk activities. There’s a dialectic here between risk and safety, discovery and certainty. They cite Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity that says that couples need space and differentiation.

When two people are too close to each other psychologically, there is no distance to transverse, no gap to move across, and the basic dynamic of the erotic impulse is frustrated or made much more difficult to sustain. Perel notes that people who have sustained long-lasting erotic partnerships approach each other as if their partner is an undiscovered country, even after years of living together. [Pg.87]

I would suggest that applies to not just your partner, but your sexuality in general. That leaves us on the dilemma of assimilation versus discovery.

“It’s like being gay” provides family members, partners, and friends with a key metaphor in relating to the kinky person. In these situations, it is not surprising to come across the same dynamics that someone who is bisexual, gay, lesbian, or transgender will have in acknowledging this aspect of themselves: anxiety about the process of coming out to family, friends, and associated, wrestling with internalized homophobia or transphobia, and managing the stress of being marginalized as a sexual minority. The same psychological dynamics and dilemmas apply for kinky people who have made this aspect of their sexuality more central to their daily lives and identities: the anxiety about coming out, wrestling with internalized “kink-phobia”, and the stress of being marginalized or erased as a sexuality minority. [Pg.90]

There limitations to the “It’s like being gay” concept, however. This is a dividing chasm between straight, or straight-passing, people and gay men or lesbians. One side can pass as “normal”, the other can’t.

Another issue lies in the conflict between desires for submission and standard Western liberal views of psychology, which holds that maximizing personal autonomy is a good.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for providing competent care to people in 24/7 [dominant/submissive] relationships is how standard or traditional therapy has embodied the Western cultural value placed on the independent self, or individualism, a cultural value that reflects a particular Western European Enlightenment theory of self, health, and well-being. Concepts like codependency and enmeshment can be used inappropriately to denigrate collectivism and interdependence as a cultural value. [Pg.91]

We propose that 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationships can be viewed through this lens. What if submissives operate with an interdependent self and a relational worldview? What if Dominants also value the connections that define their relationships to others, more than acting in narcissistic or egocentric ways reflecting individualism? […] It is possible that there is a lot of similarity between a healthy 24/7 relationship and intimate domestic relationships that occur between adults in other cultures. [Pg.92]

This is a subject a little beyond my pay grade. Likewise, the authors later discuss topics like the use of violence within society and edgeplay topics like ageplay. [Pg. 114] This is explained on the principle that the interior mind is a separate realm from the external world; however, many of the authors in Against Sadomasochism and Unleashing Feminism would criticize the idea that the personal and the political are not connected.

Getting back to the “It’s like being gay” idea, the authors ask:

It is possible that the eroticization of power is similar to sexual orientation, that some people are more oriented to erotic power exchange than other people. If so, the development¬† and the nature/nurture sources of an erotic orientation to power are probably similar to the development and nature/nurture aspects of sexual orientation. The concept of “coming out” around a stigmatized sexuality is also probably the same. [Pg.117]

Again, where there are similarities, we need to consider that in the light of the questions about the idea of an “orientation”, as a fixed aspect of individual identity.

BDSM sexuality, as practiced by many people, is part of a subculture. It should, logically, be approached as an issue of cultural diversity, alongside gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues, and cultural issues surrounding marriage, family, and and other intimate relationships. In our experience, it takes more than twelve hours to learn about BDSM sexuality in a manner that would prepare a counselor or therapist to provide competent, sensitive, and effective therapy. [Pg. 121]

The authors estimate that there is “about one well-trained therapist for every ten thousand kinky people, a staggering ratio”. [Pg. 121] If kinky people are to be viewed as a distinct population, the mental and physical health requirements of that group can’t be ignored. Sexual Outsiders is a good step in making the helping professions understand that group.

 

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