Samuel Cook was a serial rapist who attacked
women in their homes in Cambridge, England, between October
1974 and April 1975. He was known in the press as the “Cambridge
There was a peculiarly theatrical quality to
Cook’s crimes. Today, we are still grappling with the idea that
most rapes are committed by people the victim knew. Cook fit the
stereotypical view of a rapist at the time, a socially marginal
figure who broke into homes and assaulted strangers. Reportedly, if
he didn’t find a victim, he would write taunting messages on their
What’s significant for this discussion is that
he work a black leather hood with the word “RAPIST” literally
written across the forehead. What puzzled me was, why and how did
Cook get a leather mask? An ordinary cloth or wool ski mask or
balaclava would have sufficed to conceal his identity.
Lasting Marks is a short documentary on the infamous Operation Spanner case, in which gay men in 1980s Britain were arrested and tried for consensual sadomasochism. I should point out that the documentary is mostly scans of newspaper articles and legal documents, with a voiceover interview with one of the accused.
In my research, I’ve observed patterns in the past that we still see today.
For instance, in the 1830s, a woman named Maria Monk turned up in New York City. She claimed that she had been held prisoner as a sex slave in a convent in Montreal, where she had been subjected to bizarre tortures and told to sexually serve the priests who entered the convent via an underground tunnel. Any offspring of these unions would be baptized, strangled and disposed of in lime pits.
Richard Pérez Seves has written a thorough and visually engrossing study of fetish artist Eric Stanton and the world he lived in. Stanton was one of the major artists to define the post-WWII American style of fetish and BDSM art, when this genre was very much underground. Seves managed to get access to impressive quantities of ephemera of the artist’s life and interviews with his friends and families.
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.
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.
Divine Deviance panel, 28 September 2018. L-R: Peter Tupper, Carol Queen, Gayle Rubin, Mufasa Ali, Dr. Robert Bienvenu, and Rostum Mesli.
One of the best things about subcultures is that it is possible to meet all of the major people involved in them. In the case of the micro-field of sadomasochism history studies, it’s possible to get the leading people sitting around a single table.
I was deeply honored to be sitting at the same table as the people whose work I had read and built on for many years: sexologist & Center for Sex & Culture ED Carol Queen, academic & activist Gayle Rubin, ONYX founder & Mr World Leather 2006-07 Mufasa Ali, anthropologist & historian Dr. Robert Bienvenu, and academic & author Rostum Mesli. The shoot was at the Catalyst playspace in San Francisco.
The shoot took about seven hours, including lunch breaks, but all of it was fascinating. A lot of the discussion revolved around what exactly BDSM was, and what wasn’t BDSM, and whether certain activities and cultures grouped together really had anything to do with each other. This also raised the question of, when we looked into the past to find antecedents of modern BDSM (whatever that is), do we find anything, or do we see something else that only superficially resembles modern BDSM but isn’t actually. A lot of my thinking on the subject was put to the test, in a dialog that refined everybody’s thoughts.
It was also just a pleasure hanging out with people who have lived through some of what I have been studying. Not only did I meet Carol Queen and Gayle Rubin, one of the producers was Race Bannon.