Dec 162012

BBC News has an article on the first above-ground BDSM group in India, the Kinky Kollective.

The participants are members of the The Kinky Collective, a small group of heterosexual and transgender people, trying to connect to other Indians active and open about their BDSM preferences on various online communities and social networking websites.

The group’s two functions are education for people interested in kink, and spreading awareness to outside groups and agencies.

Continue reading »

Dec 302010

Nussbaum, Felicity. Torrid Zones.

Lee, Debbie.  Slavery and the Romantic Imagination.

Richard Burton postulated the “Sotadic zone”, in which male-male sexuality was normal and accepted south of certain latitudes. This equation of sexuality and geography was a common subtext of 18th and 19th century discourses, and still prevalent today. Sexuality was equated with other cultural traits, such as sloth versus industry, reason versus emotion, and these traits were equated with particular geographical regions. (Nussbaum, Pg. 8-9) “Androgynous, transgressive, ‘monstrous,’ lesbian, and working-class women – indigenous and colonizing women – are all linked metaphorically to bawdy women and are located on the fringes of respectability akin to brute savagery.” (Nussbaum, pg. 10)

It wasn’t only men who “exploited” the imaginative space of the Orient for sexual purposes. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) imitates the Turkish slave women she sees on her Grand Tour in her dress and dancing, gaining power and agency via performing as “England’s caricature of the Turkish harem woman” (Nussbaum, Pg. 35) at masquerades. Likewise, Lady Montagu’s description of Turkish baths had a strong frisson of lesbianism. (Nussbaum, pg. 139)

Our modern conceptions of normal gender and sexuality were still being sorted out at this point in Western history. Homoerotic relationships between women were seen as part of initiating women into sexuality with the eventual goal of heterosexuality and marriage. “Same-sex desire, initiation into heterosexuality through homosexuality, or bisexual activity [in women] did not fix sexual identity but instead influenced public opinion of a woman’s character that was itself defined by the visible–that is, by cross-dressing or by publicly acceptable intimacy between women.” (Nussbaum, Pg. 147) (Cf. the Brittany-Santana relationship in Glee. Kurt goes through agony because of self-identification as gay despite a lack of actual sexual experience, while Brittany and Santana freely screw around but maintain their performance of normative gender as cheerleaders)

Another way people related to the African or Oriental slave was by acts of imagination, notably for our purposes in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (Lee, pg. 34) He cites the example of imagining ourselves into a suffering slave on the rack, feeling his bodily experience.

Could the true experience of suffering be conveyed to the person who had not literally suffered so? Or did it only fall into stereotype?

Abolitionist poems relied so heavily on stereotypes that it is impossible to imagine the movement without the standard register of diseased ships, growling captains, clamoring crews, greedy planters, lush tropical isles, shackled slave men, and dejected slave women grabbing after their children. Although these images all had some basis in reality, writers invoked this cliched catalog for some specific reasons. Like dinnerware and sugar bowls, stereotypes existed through duplication and thrived through mass consumption. The etymology of the word stereotype, in fact, refers to the printing plate used to reproduce many copies of the same material, and therefore emphasizes how abolitionist poets who employed the slave mother stereotype were in the business of sentimental reproduction.

Lee, pg. 212

You could also apply that to pornography, mass production of familiar types. Mary Prince’s slave narrative The History of Mary Prince (1831), describes her beating in great detail (Lee, Pg.215), but she also stops several times in her narrative to say her suffering is “too, too bad to speak in England” (Lee, Pg. 216). This recalls Harriet Jacobs’ difficulty getting her own un-expurgated slave narrative published a few decades later. Prince (who dictated her story that was transcribed and edited by others for abolitionist purposes) keeps “intruding” into her own story, reminding the reader of the actual person who experienced this and preventing the usual free flow of identification between author and text.

Feb 262010

Kabbani, Rana. Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient Saqi, 2008 Link

Indeed, Orientalist images of the future will not be stylised depictions of milky-white odalisques, held captive by brown, turbaned villains. Rather, they will be grainy photographs of Iraqi men, stripped of clothes and dignity, at the mercy of army dogs and bestial United States soldiers – reduced to being the playthings of the ‘few bad apples’ of the damned, rotting cartload. Anonymous snapshots of torture-porn at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad must stand as the twenty-first century’s depraved answer to ‘Le Bain Turc’ of Ingres.


Continue reading »

Feb 202010

DelPlato, Joan. Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the Harem, 1800-1875 Rosemount, 2002

John Frederick Lewis, The Harem 1850

As shown in the painting above (John Frederick Lewis, Hhareem 1850), there’s a lot invested in the view of the harem as fantasy. The “truth” of life in a polygynous harem in the Arab world is almost irrelevant to the way the harem, and particularly the harem woman, figured in Western discourse. Feminists saw polygyny in the worst light, while apologists depicted it in utopian terms, a model of gender relationships in which men did not have to compete for women.

Continue reading »

Jan 092008

Noyes, John K. The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism Cornell University Press, 1997. Amazon

The following images came from Noyes’ book on masochism. It became apparent early in reading that I was in the hands of an inveterate Foucauldian. It was part of a spate of inter-library loan requests, brought on by Google Books, which all arrived within a week or so. I had a thick stack of academic texts to read over the holidays, and there were no renewals either.

Continue reading »

Dec 262007


I’m zeroing in on the nexus of slavery, sensibility and the nascent sadomasochistic subculture, sometime around 1800. I think this is when the master-slave terminology and imagery entered the culture. There was flagellation and the like prior to that, but I don’t think the master-slave jargon was a part of it.

I think you need a certain historical and/or geographical distance to enable the fantasy of something like slavery. Munby and Cullwick, I theorize, absorbed slavery images and literature in their childhood and youth, through books, stage plays, minstrel street performances and other media. However, in early 19th century England and other European nations, real slavery was “back then” (i.e. something in the barbaric past, practiced by “primitive” nations) and “over there” (i.e. the tropics, Africa and North America) not in the here and now. Even contemporary texts, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850), were comfortably “over there” for Europeans.

Continue reading »

Nov 122006

From The Tricky Business of Being Submissive:

I’m not going to go into the history of slaves as a being subjected to cruelties and hardships. We all know these things existed and exist today. It happened to every race and every generation has suffered in some way, either directly or by way of the trickle down effect. This sort of slavery has nothing to do with a woman or man who calls himself slave in the BDSM style.

I have to disagree somewhat. After reading Marcus Wood’s Blind Memory and Slavery, Empathy and Pornography, as well as the references to slavery in Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Krafft-Ebing’s case histories, I believe that the BDSM idea of slavery evolved out of reactions to the idea of real life slavery.

Pro-slavery groups tried to idealize slavery as a means of uplift or a more equitable social arrangement than living in market capitalism. E.g. Crusoe’s domination of Friday is seen as right and just, an example of natural order asserting itself.

On the other hand, abolitionist texts, which endeavored to communicate the horror of slavery, had a strange interaction with the cult of sensibility, what we today would call sympathy. This is the idea that a heightened capacity for vicariously experiencing the feelings of others was a sign of mental refinement.

For example, Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass wrote:

All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,
The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her
children gazing on,
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence,
blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous
buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the
ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments…

Whitman’s passage and other abolitionist fiction become a kind of exercise in which the poet (and by extension the reader) exercises his/her capacity for sympathy by imagining a slave, the most abject of people, and projecting into that role. You could compare it to a person who practices transvestism, constructing an alternate social role which allows people a different range of personal expression.

Arthur Munby was a prime example of this, a minor poet and author man who spent a lot of time and mental effort studying and imagining the interior experience of women who were at or near the bottom of the social ladder, and who developed a master-slave relationship with Hannah Cullwick. Munby would sometimes imagine himself, the gentleman, as the decorative, effeminate, dependent counterpart to the unadorned, masculine, protective servant woman.

Munby and Cullwick were both imaginative, and understood that their roles of master and slave were interdependent. However, the particular details of their fantasy scripts grew out of the pro-slavery and abolitionist media that were prevalent during their lives: novels, poetry, abolitionist propaganda, “Tom shows” in the streets and theatres, and the lingering residue of slavery in Britain. I’d even go so far as to say that without Atlantic slavery, BDSM as we know it today would not exist. BDSM is one of those “trickle effects” mentioned above.

From Mr. Meow’s LJ, more thoughts on interracial fantasy and BDSM:

Is race play becoming common in our PC world? Or is it relugated to some fringe groups, with people who have obvious problems. Why would any self respecting black person want to be owned by a white master? And additionally be called derogatory names. They must be SELF HATING is the first thought that comes to mind. I Feel sorry for these misguided souls.

What white domme would admit in a public forum his desire to own a black slave in the 21st century.

Or is it perhaps something that is deeper. Maybe this so called “Race Play” as I’ve heard it called is actually just the tip of the ice berg for racializing sexual fetishism that only those few in the so called “fringe” groups are bold enough to admit to themselves and in public. Whereas a plethora of race and sex politics exist and coincide in relative isolation in the deepest recess’ of a modern first world persons’ brain. Too unpleasant to admit even to oneself.

There are those who say that race is color blind and that its the individual not the race that one sees. Most often such statements are spoken by those who not subjected to the treatment ‘otherness’ brings.

If the historical roots of BDSM are the reactions to Atlantic slavery, then it is unsurprising that there are people today who fantasize about racial stereotypes. BDSM fantasy is built in a legacy of colonial literature and art, among other things, and we still, to this day, see the same archetypes and scenarios played out, over and over again.

Will there ever be a day when, say, an Asian woman can be seen by white people without the lingering influence of Madame Butterfly or the Dragon Lady? I don’t know. Maybe those archetypes exist in the human psyche, independent of and prior to any specific historical context. Centuries from now, those archetypes could attach themselves to some other social division.

Oct 252006

About 2/3rds of the way through through Marcus Wood’s Blind Memory, I’m convinced that the imagery of Atlantic slavery is a very important aspect in the evolution of BDSM. There are many, many written and visual examples of slaves being beaten and otherwise tormented in abolitionist texts. Frequently, these images become an opportunity to depict the black female body nude or semi-nude in extremis.

Willam Blake engraving

Continue reading »