Oct 272015

Khan, Ummni. Vicarious Kinks: S/m in the Socio-Legal Imaginary. Toronto Univ. of Toronto Press, 2014.

Remember “Two Girls One Cup“? This video clip of two women appearing to eat feces out of a cup went viral a few years ago. I happened to be at a vanilla party where everybody wanted to take their turn seeing the clip, with the kind of horrified fascination usually seen in children poking a dead mouse. The clip went viral powered by that kind of attraction/repulsion experience, exposing it to an audience orders of magnitude larger than the probably tiny audience of corporophagia fetishists it was originally made for. Disgust is a powerful force in human experience, perhaps more powerful than desire.

Jamie Dornan, who played Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey film, was less than flattering in his view of the kink scene, as he told Elle UK:

He visits a sex-dungeon of course. “I went there, they offered me a beer, and they did…whatever they were into. I saw a dominant with one of his two submissives,” he says.

There was plenty of kink… and plenty laughter. “I was like: ‘Come on guys I know I’m not paying for this but I am expecting a show.’ It was an interesting evening. Then going back to my wife and newborn baby afterwards… I had a long shower before touching either of them.”

Not only did Dornan treat this as an exhibition for his pleasure, he evinced disgust afterwards, especially in the context of not touching his wife or child, as if he was contaminated. (Probably some of the people he observed had their own spouses and children. Did they take a long shower before touching them?)

Even people who are on the side of kinky people still need to express their disgust of BDSM. Law professor Alan Young, who defended Ontario pro-dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, wrote in his book:

Despite my championing of the S/M cause, I always had a bit of sadness when I thought about some of the characters inhabiting this sub-terranean world. It’s somewhat pathetic that someone has to dress up as Louis XV or as an infant in a soiled diaper and yell “Vive la France” or whimper “Mommy, don’t hurt me too bad” in order to get a sexual buzz. I find this sad because I still believe that vanilla sex is one of the most magnificent and oceanic experiences available in life’s repertoire. Who needs the costumes and the humiliation? Well, I guess some people do. [Pg. 278-279, quoting Young’s 2003 book, pg. 97]

Young uses words like “sadness” or “pathetic” to describe BDSM, while his own sex life is “magnificent and oceanic”. It’s not enough to say that he feels no attraction to BDSM, he has to denigrate it and valorize his own vanilla sexuality.

Both Dornan and Young described their reaction to BDSM as one of visceral disgust, and in so doing re-state their attachment to the normative values of heterosexual family and vanilla sexuality.

Like Young and Dornan, Ummni Khan explains her own relationship to BDSM, though she avoids using the rhetoric disgust. The book opens with a screenplay format story of her own trajectory through the sex wars, from feminist orthodoxy to interested observer, though not participant. Her turning point was reading about R. v. Butler, which upheld the obscenity provisions in Canada’s Criminal Code. It was first applied to criminalize a lesbian s/m magazine. The politics of disgust creates allies out of enemies, shoves people into the boxes of “abuser” or “victim”, and contorts logic into bizarre configurations. This is Khan attempting to make sense of all this. “In considering these intertwining conceptions of s/m, my point of departure is to understand the construction of s/m as a narrative product made up of multidisciplinary, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting stories.” (Pg.11)

Khan’s thesis is that when the vanilla mainstream encounters kink, it is not enough to voice a lack of interest, or coolly criticize BDSM individuals or practices. One must feel disgust, whether expressed in horror or derisive humour. When something violates our categories of right and wrong, or sacred and profane, the boundaries must be shored up, and the offending objects or people must be expelled from the category of “human.” In this logic, kinky people are not merely different, but monstrous individuals unworthy of basic human respect. This is the thinking that lead to the Mark IV bathhouse raid, with the bitterly ironic newspaper headline of “Police free gay slaves”. The police felt entitled to arrest, beat, imprison, and humiliate the men at the event; by their very actions, they must have deserved it.

Khan sees this disgust as a driving force. In Foucaultian terms, this is what makes the discourses of sexuality multiply, not just desire. To see, to judge, to categorize, to punish, and to expel, are their own pleasures. In the political arena, this plays out in the phenomenon of the moral panic.

When confronted with the s/m abject, disgust-implying labels like “monster” or “misogynist” are employed by those who seek to establish who belongs in the community, and to eradicate the “in-between,” to clarify the “ambiguous,” and to pull apart the “composite.” Yet as [William] Miller points out, “Disgust is a recognition of danger to our purity” (1997, 204) In its very utterance, disgust acknowledges the instability of categories and demonstrates the necessity to police their frontiers. Furthermore, articulations of disgust spoken from a position of relative power (whether a judge ruling on the legality of s/m, or a renowned scholar condemning “patriarchal” sexuality) do not eradicate pleasure.


When power speaks the language of sexual disgust, the judgement operates as a device of excitation and incitement. When one is disgusted with a sexual other, one is captivated, shocked, and entertained (Miller, 1997, 17). The bearer of disgust buttresses her own humanity by erasing it from another (17). Yet when the frontiers between the normal and the perverse are threatened, or worse, breached, utterances of disgust will often not suffice; rejection and expulsion become the compulsory measures to sanctify the community of normalcy.[Pg.18-19]

This is why, for example, the controversies within the lesbian-feminist movement over lesbian sadomaoschists in the 1970s and 1980s was so vehement. When feminists drew the line between good (women who were aligned with other women and practiced non-violent, non-hierarchical sexuality) and bad (women aligned with men and patriarchal sexuality), kinky lesbians didn’t fit into that schematic, and had to be expelled. Entire anthologies were written and published explicitly condemning lesbian S/M (and rarely if ever considering gay male or heterosexual S/M, Pg.55). Some of the essays read like Christian “reformed sinner” narratives, by women who grudgingly admitted the seductive qualities of BDSM only to reject it with feminist revelation. The flip side of revulsion is attraction, after all. [Pg. 73] “In this sense, anti-s/m confessions traffic in the thrill of going too far and harness the delights of shame when revealing dirty secrets.” [Pg.76] In extreme cases, UK feminists attempted “direct action” to prevent the screenings of the film She Must Be Seeing Things (for allegedly promoting butch-femme and s/m themes), including attempting to steal the film out of the video machine, plant a fake bomb in the theatre lavoratory, storming the stage, and pouring cement down the toilet in a cinema. [Pg.90]

She also looks at the works of Krafft-Ebing and Freud and Havelock-Ellis on sadism and masochism, and how their unfounded theories have never been questioned and have survived to the present day, more than a century later. E.g. that sadists will always escalate their desires, and that sexual masochists must inevitably turn to self-destruction, from Freud’s “moral masochism” theory. [Pg. 34-35] It took decades of revisions of the DSM to give any consideration to consent or distress. [Pg.42-43]

Khan is an associate professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, and her two chapters of analysis of the legal cases of BDSM representation and practice, especially in Canadian law, are top-notch resources.

Is BDSM sex or violence? If you ask the courts of the USA, Canada and the UK, you’ll get various inconsistent answers. [Pg.300-301] The services provided by Terri-Jean Bedford were deemed sexual, therefore illegal, and abnormal. The humiliation and violence the police visited upon her at her arrest, including strip searching her, were only mildly chastised by the judge, and seen as perfectly normal, excusable expressions of gender anxiety from the police officers.

Under the auspices of the law, s/m subjects are convicted, incarcerated, fined, stripped, humiliated, shoved, mocked, infantilized, pathologized, dehumanized, censored, trivialized, erased, dismissed from their jobs, and denied all or partial access to their children. […] The cruel irony then is that the dominant script in the socio-legal imaginary casts s/m as fiolent, while the violence imposed by the law upon the bodies and subjectivities of s/m practitioners happens offstage, outside of the narrative.

At the same time, these hegemonic discourses reap epistemic enjoyment in discerning, delineating, and determining the truth of s/m. While often being repressive and punitive, socio-legal discourses on s/m effectively proliferate pleasure as they traffic in the excitement and the incitement of new knowledges of sex. In other words, not only is knowledge power, knowledge is also pleasure. [Pg. 305]

In Khan’s analysis of mainstream films that deal with BDSM, there are similar phenomena of treating kink as something seductive and fascinating, but the narrative must resolve with this taboo either being expelled or tamed. They also perpetuate the myths (“truth-claims”) from Krafft-Ebing, Freud and so on. In films like Something Wild, Preaching to the Perverted, or Exit to Eden, the dominant female is initially fascinating and seductive to the submissive male, but the woman’s dominance must be revealed as a defensive measure that she must abandoned before she and the man can have true intimacy. Also in those three films, submissive men must move into more dominant positions in order for the couple to be viable. In films like Basic Instinct or Body of Evidence, the dominant female is revealed as a monstrous murderer.

Films about male-dominant/female-submissive pairings, such as 9 1/2 WeeksSecretary and Fifty Shades of Grey have a similar process. BDSM is acceptable to the mainstream if the other conventions of romance are followed: the people must be white, attractive, upper middle class, heterosexual, etc. They can be kinky, but only up to a certain, vaguely defined, and arbitrary point. Mr. Grey is a suitable romantic partner for Lee in Secretary. The other kinky men she meets are too kinky, if only being in being submissive or masochistic. Secretary and the Fifty Shades books and movie were commercial hits because they gave the mainstream just enough of a novelty, surrounded by the reassuring and the familiar. A spoonful of sugar…. or rather, a dash of the exotic makes the familiar a little more exciting without challenging the palate too much.

Secretary and Walk All Over Me, along with Exit to Eden and Preaching to the Perverted, stand out as exceptions, which attempt to plead a case for s/m normalcy if contained within other hegemonic strictures, such as in gender roles, sexual orientation, or marital status. Nonetheless, the bulk of the films operate as a warning against s/m practice. [Pg. 180]

This is how s/m critics explain s/m, in a framework that is somewhat Christian in its view of the seductiveness of wrongdoing.

Pleasure experienced by s/m enthusiasts is dismissed as perversion, as deviancy, or as a product of brainwashing. Pleasure in non-normative sexual practices has anti-epistemological force; it is the body misleading the mind towards violence or self-destruction. Meanwhile, the disgust that outsiders or even practitioners themselves might feel towards the sexual practice is validated. […] In legal, feminist, and cinematic narratives, disgust with the sexual other as epistemological force: encoded in the body is the knowledge of how to protect itself from harm. [Pg. 200-201]

The boundaries need to be redrawn, but are seldom abolished entirely. Fifty Shades makes BDSM acceptable if you are a woman who fits a particular set of characteristics (white, cisgender, submissive, upper class, etc), and in the process denigrates (slut shames) other categories of women, like sex workers and dominatrixes. (Pg. 309-310, referencing Eleanor Wilkinson’s 2009 “Perverting Visual Pleasure: Representing Sadomasochism.” Sexualities 12 (2)) In the book’s view, there are still good women and bad women, those worthy of privilege and those unworthy.

As BDSM becomes increasingly visible, kinky educators and leaders will have to think about how they will interact with the mainstream. Khan’s book is definitely one of the best I’ve read on how BDSM fits within the rest of human society.

  3 Responses to “Ummni Khan’s Vicarious Kinks: S/M in the socio-legal imaginary”

  1. […] Ummni Khan pointed out, one of the problems of the anti-BDSM discourse of lesbian-feminists is that they prescribe a […]

  2. […] Umni Khan’s Vicarious Kinks for examples of the consequences of this prejudice. It’s also harder to come up with […]

  3. […] her book Vicarious Kinks, Umni Khan points out that in films like Preaching and Something Wild, the romance plotline between […]

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