Apr 182021

Stein, Stephen K. 2021. Sadomasochism and the BDSM community in the United States: kinky people unite. New York : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

Stein’s first chapter, which attempts to describe the proto-BDSM culture of the early and mid twentieth century, is a necessarily scattershot collection of data points. Research any historical field long enough and the gaps in the record become clear. We know so little about the sadomasochistic subculture prior to the 1970s. There’s some data about the gay subset, precious little about straights, and practically nothing about lesbians. Stein had access to the Kinsey Institute, the Carter Johnson Leather Library, the NLA Archives and more, and even then he couldn’t shed any new light on American BDSM before 1970. 

Stein treats the BDSM culture as a whole, whereas I think it is more accurate to describe it as three parallel but separate streams (gay, lesbian, and straight), each with their own economy, and culture, that occasionally influence each other.

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Sep 192012

The National Coalition on Sexual Freedom is running a survey on consent in BDSM, and they plan on closing it in two weeks. I think this is a worthy cause towards gathering data on an important issue.

I have some quibbles with the design of the survey, as some of the questions about personal rights extend well beyond the realms of BDSM. For example, one involves how much you believe a person can consent to being killed, which is far more likely to come up in the context of debilitating illness than anything resembling BDSM.

Jun 042012

Salon.com has a post on what the role of Fetlife should be in preventing or controlling abuse in the Scene.

Earlier this year, I reported on recent attempts to raise awareness about what some say is widespread abuse within the BDSM community and a tendency to either ignore it or cover it up. As I said at the time, “We’re talking about real abuse here, not the ‘consensual non-consent’ that the scene is built around.” That means safe words being maligned or ignored, and boundaries being crossed. In the months since, the conversation has only gotten louder; and following the social networking site’s removal of posts that identify alleged abusers — most often by their Fetlife moniker only — a petition was started to remove a clause from the site’s Terms of Use requiring users to pledge to not “make criminal accusations against another member in a public forum.” Currently, the proposal has 864 “spanks” (the site’s equivalent of “yes” votes).

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Jul 032011

I found the above image on a Facebook page for Americans Against The Tea Party, a contemporary example of virtue in distress/naked (implicitly) bound woman as part of political discourse.

The gallery of images on the Americans Against the Tea Party provide an insight into the less rational side of political discourse. Some of the images make arguments, while other rely on negative associations, and specifically refer to faces and bodies. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are likened to apes. Two or three display morbidly obese women as typical “teabaggers”, linking body imagery and misogyny and classism. One pastes Beck’s face onto a slim man in a leatherboy outfit, linking political deviance and sexual deviance, plus likely the cliche of overcompensatory masculinity as a cover for homosexuality. There are also easy cheap shots of juxtaposing right wingers with Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan (two organizations who really knew how to use visual iconography).

These images were presumably created and distributed by left-wing individuals, and I have no doubt that there are comparable images being created and distributed by right-wing individuals. This is a particular level of political discourse, which is very much about the body, and particularly the female body. The image displayed above, separated from the contextualizing text, could be used in other political discourses. A right-winger could use the image of a nude, bound woman to suggest the idea of a woman’s body being confined and interfered with through abortion, decriminalization of prostitution, or other liberal ideas. The image is equally usable.

This image seems to come from a tumblr account, which has a series of lefty political mini-posters. Some of them simply urge the viewer to vote, and uses mild cheesecake (and some beefcake) images to get attention. Others use children-as-victims as motivating devices.

Another image shows a bound woman, though her expression indicates angry defiance, not victimization. The art style suggests the image was recycled from some earlier conflict, indicating the timelessness of this image.

One of the images explicitly shows a woman bound, with the caption, “There’s no safeword with the GOP”, which uses the idea of consensual BDSM as a contrast to what happens between women and the right wing social agenda. (It’s in an image display Flash app, so I can’t link to it.)

As we’ve discussed before, the sexual, and particularly female sexual victimization, has been used in all kinds of political discourse: for and against Atlantic slavery, the Greek rebellion, the German invasion of Belgium in WWII, the Stalag novels, PETA’s ad campaign, and on and on. What’s interesting is that these images linger on well after the conflict that inspired them becomes irrelevant, or at least less relevant. They become detached from political discourse and become solely sexual, part of pornographic discourse.

Addendum: by chance, I came across a book in the erotica section that had a variation of the same image on the cover, Playing by Melanie Abrams, Black Cat, 2008.

May 172011

Bountiful BC is a community of about 1000 people near Creston BC, home to a Mormon splinter group that practices polygyny, one man with multiple wives. The shortage of women has driven the age of marriage and child birth down to the early teens, and there’s been reports of young women being moved across the border to similar communities in the US. There are also problems stemming from a lack of places for younger men in this community.

The BC Attorney General hasn’t been able to prosecute the community’s leaders, because of claims of religious freedom and the difficulty of getting people in a tight-knit community to come forward and testify. The AG has turned to an old, rarely used law, Section 293 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes any form of polygamy or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person. It hasn’t been used in decades, when it was used against First Nations.

Right now, the BC Supreme Court is conducing a reference to determine the constitutionality of S.293. Critics say that the law is overly broad and vague, and intrudes on people’s personal lives, and could apply to people who practise polyamory or even live together as roommates. Supporters say the law can be “read down” to apply only to cases where exploitation is clear.

Apart from the many kinky people who are also poly, this case is relevant to kinky people in general.

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Nov 232010

Mahdavi, Pardis. Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution Standford University Press, 2009 Google books

Iranian woman - Tehran

This fascinating book is based on a series of Mahdavi’s visits from America to Iran between 2000 and 2007, which gave her an interesting longitudinal perspective of social change in Iran.

Mahdavi’s book explores a particular “thin slice” of Iranian society: young, urban, secular-minded, middle-class (or wishing to appear so), over-educated, under-employed, mobile (via cars and mobile phones), and exposed to the developed world via Internet and satellite TV. The men go clean-shaven and hair-gelled. The women wear tight-fighting mantos (coats) and headscarves that show their streaked hair, plus multiple layers of makeup. It’s a particular style of dress that has developed by dancing on the edge of Iran’s sartorial laws, under which a bare ankle, a three-quarter sleeve or a few centimetres of exposed hair could result in harassment, arrest or being whipped. Its also a statement against identifying with the ascetic look of morality police. They drive to house parties (no night clubs or other public venues), drink imported liquor, dance (completely forbidden) to Iranian-American hip-hop, and screw around, all the while looking over their shoulders.

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Nov 232010

This political attack ad from the just-finished American election season deploys two class tropes: associating your enemy with financial malfeasance (“He’s a crook and will steal your money.”) and associating your enemy with “extreme values”, i.e. sexual deviance (“He’s a freak and will break up your family.”) It doesn’t actually show anything except shots of Newsom hand-picked to make him look sketchy and rich, but it does link him with bondage and leather festival (presumably the Folsom Street festival) and job training for transpeople (which sounds like a perfectly legitimate government activity to me).

Whether kinky people think so or not, BDSM is political, if only because non-kinky people make it so by using it in their own actions.

In related news, Christian right gadfly Peter LaBabera has posted his annual attack on the Folsom Street Fair, completely with his traditional snipe at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for letting this happen. This is a curiously half-hearted year for LaBarbera, with only a single image and a short text post. Maybe he’s devoting most of his energy to the gays-in-the-military issue.

Jul 092010

Alan Moore’s 25,000 years of Erotic Freedom is a long essay that lays out Moore’s theory that pornography should be integrated into society. It’s only relatively recently that any shame attached to erotic depiction. Before then, there was a beautiful tradition of erotic high art, which Moore says goes back to the Venus of Willendorf.

The problem started with Christianity, or rather the ascetic Christianity of the late Roman empire. It wasn’t decadence that did in the Romans, but becoming a Christian, and therefore an-erotic and xenophobic, society. There were brief flowerings in the Rennaissance and the Englightenment, but thing really went wrong with the Victorians. (This is a pre-Foucault view of the repressive hypothesis.)

Implicitly, it was acceptable to enjoy sexual imagery as long as you accepted also that such acts were sinful and felt suitably ashamed and guilty if you were in any way aroused by their depiction. This established the immediate link between the perusal of pornography and intense self-loathing or embarrassment, which still exists today throughout most of the Western world.

Pg 16

For the purposes of this discussion, there’s the problem of where does BDSM porn, and BDSM in general, fall into Moore’s schema? Is it an expression of the humanizing erotic impulse, or of the corrupting influence of violence and shame?

Even in the golden age of written and graphic pornography, with works like Fanny Hill or Gerda Wegener’s illustrations or Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings or the like, BDSM acts are frequently in there somewhere, especially flagellation, but also a well-turned high-heeled boot or shoe or the like.

In those [Victorian] times, long before the advent of the adult video outlet, city businessmen returning homeward for a wekened with their spouse or partner would call in at some backstreet establishment and pick up a gaslight equivalent: just as theater predates cinema, so too did fully scored dramatic home pornography precede the skin-flick. Pornographic playlets could be purchased, ranging from two-person dramas through to full ensemble pieces if the neighbors were agreeable. These publications came with sheet music, so that if one of the participants were musically inclined then he or she could sit at the piano and provide a vigorous accompaniment to whatever activity was taking place upon the hearth rug or the horsehair sofa. (Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but was told that by Malcolm McLaren, and if you can’t rust Malcolm McLaren then whom can you trust?)

Pg. 18

This isn’t really a historical book or even an essay. It’s more like have a pub conversation with Moore where he’s spinning out some off-the-cuff theories. You don’t bring a bibliography to a pub conversation.

Just to recap, then: Sexually progressive cultures gave us mathematics, literature, philosophy, civilization, and the rest, while sexually restrictive cultures gave us the Dark Ages and the Holocaust. Not that I’m trying to load my argument, of course.

Pg. 39

As a general rule, I think this holds up: the better the status of women in a society, the less restriction there is on sexual expression. But I wouldn’t stake my reputation on that. I’d like to see some kind of study comparing the two factors: an index of pay equity, reproductive rights, etc, versus restrictions on depictions of sexuality, sex work laws, etc. But it would involve so many subjective issues that I don’t think it would be a solid piece of research.

So, what is the relationship between a society’s sexual expressiveness and its progressiveness on a social scale?

I think that this is a much thornier and complex issue than some people would like to make it. Anti-porn feminism wanted to create the equation of “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.” Sex-positive types say there’s no connection at all, that pornography actually functions as a release valve for desires that would otherwise fester into violence.

It’s said that liberal democracies are good for market economies, but market economies aren’t necessarily good for liberal democracies. I see this as analogy to the relationship between sexual expression and progressiveness.

I tend to agree with Moore’s hypothesis, and there’s a bit of a manifesto that I can get behind: that there should be ambition on the part of porn’s creators, and porn should not be consumed in shameful secrecy. These are the ideas that informed Moore’s Lost Girls trilogy, which aimed to be part of an art-porn historical tradition, to be a coffee-table-book display artifact, to invest literary and artistic skill into porn and stimulate discussion.

Still, as I historian I want a more rigorous study of the history of porn, and one that’s more nuanced too.

Apr 052010

From Protein Wisdom via Racialicious comes this charming glimpse into the American political discourse:

Despite the poster’s disclaimers (“I made it a cartoon and not a photoshop and the “woman” is green. Deal, people.”), this image hits hard on one of the biggest hot buttons in the American unconscious: a black man raping a white woman. In this particular case, the scenario appears to be one of acquaintance rape. The setting appears to be the Statue of Liberty’s bedroom, and the Obama-caricature refers to “consent.” The implication seems to be seduction that became rape, that Obama is violating America by trickery and lies, but outright violence is the end result.

This goes into the tradition of war propaganda, harem fantasies based on the Greek-Turkish war, the Nazi-exploitation genre, les femmes tondues of post-WWII France, etc. : the analogy of political deviance with sexual deviance. In this case, Obama’s policies with interracial, black-male-on-white-female rape. Just because it happens a lot doesn’t mean it is a good part of political discourse.

Collective sexual fantasies accumulate around public figures, particularly political figures. Back in 2008, much was made of Obama’s youth, handsomeness and charisma, compared to McCain’s age and less telegenic personality. (Of course, even more was made about Sarah Palin’s body and sexuality, but that’s another post.)

Anyway, this cartoon goes right to the American hindbrain, the same tangled mass of race, gender and class that makes interracial porn so popular. I’d go so far to say that for every white person who gets his or her dander up about the thought of Obama symbolically raping the Statue of Liberty, there’s a white guy jacking off to the fantasy of some big black stud having rough sex with his wife. That’s the American collective anxiety, the same way that back in the 1820s Englishmen thought about Turks invading Greece.

As a side note, writing from Canada, I’m truly astonished at the vehemence of resistance to Obama’s policies, particularly universal healthcare, and to Obama as a person.

Feb 152009

Karl Marx wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” (Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2 (1942))

Consider the film Reefer Madness.

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