Jul 252012

About a month ago, I got a comment on my writing promotional blog from an editor at a local book publisher. She had seen my article on Maria Monk in Maisonneuve magazine, and wanted to know if I had any ideas for books on porn or sexuality.

Thrilled, I polished up my book proposal and the two completed chapters and emailed them too her. Then I started chewing my nails.

Last week, I got an email back from her saying that she appreciated the work on my project, but it wasn’t what she was looking for. She did say she wanted to meet and to discuss ideas. I threw together a quickie proposal for a cultural history of the intersection of propaganda and pornography, ThreatPorn, and emailed that to her. (This might become another book project, one more narrowly focused, after or perhaps before the history of BDSM book is done.)

On Tuesday, I finally met her face to face. While she is definitely interested in BDSM, she thinks that my two proposals are too academic for a trade readership. They’re collections of information, but not books really, certainly not something that will grab the attention of non-kinky, non-academic readers.

Which is the problem. Early in the project, I complained about people who described the history of kink by mentioning de-contextualized anecdotes, with no coherent story. After seven years of research, I’ve got a ton of data and anecdotes, but nothing that ties it all together. I need a thesis, an argument or statement, and/or a narrative, a story to follow.

One of the things she asked me is, “What is it about BDSM that excites and interests you about it?” I couldn’t really come up with an answer, or at least not an elegant answer.

I have ideas about BDSM (perhaps too many). I needed to develop them to guide my research, instead of relying on the “I know it when I see it.” There are key concepts like the cultural response to trauma, the use of ritual, the strong and perverse mis-readings, but none of them, I think, are individually strong enough to build the whole book on.

Ideally, I’d like to come up some bold idea that will grab the attention of even vanilla people, and get them to read. Something that no one else has said before. I just don’t know what it is yet.

While I didn’t get a book deal, I did learn something valuable about what this project needs.The editor said she was still interested in doing a book on BDSM, but one that had a strong hook for a commercial audience.

One strong inspiration for this project was Donna Minkowitz’s book Ferocious Romance. The author is a kinky lesbian who did cultural anthropology in the fundamentalist Christian right wing, interviewing evangelical ministers and even infiltrating a Promise Keepers meeting in drag. Her book had, first, strong personal anecdotes, her personal journey through embracing the Other; second, a strong thesis that can be summed up in a single sentence: Evangelical Christianity offers personal renewal through being born again, just as queer culture offers it via coming out; both are forms of initiation. That’s the kind of statement I want to make about my book.

My uncle, who works in advertising, once told me that any new idea should be able to condense down until it can be written on the back of a business card. “The history of BDSM” is not enough.

On the way home, I started scribbling a free-association list of ideas about: what is BDSM?

  • ritual, especially mock-initiation
  • takes the place of religion in people’s lives (functionally)
  • sex for a consumerist society
  • whips and chains
  • black leather
  • leather, latex, rubber, lace
  • pain and pleasure
  • a way to get my rocks off
  • a way to work through issues, individually and culturally
  • a parody of power
  • an ethical system for regulating sexual relations
  • the fetishization of threat
  • expanding the boundaries of sexuality
  • a game; in Roger Callois’ terms, one that combines mimesis (i.e. roleplaying) and ilinx (i.e. distortion of perception)
  • a way to express aggression, dominance and submission, and masochism in a physically, mentally and socially safe way
  • cops and robbers for grown-ups
  • sexual drama, with stock characters and scenes
  • paradoxes: pain becomes pleasure, threat becomes reassurance, rage becomes love, submission becomes power,
  • et cetera

I think this list is leading me closer to something. I’ve shifted from an “unknown unknown” (something’s wrong, but what?) to a “known unknown” (this is the hole to be filled with something shaped like this). Now I just need to find it.

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