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BDSM: Inside the World of Kink

A look at San Francisco's kink community with an assistant anthropologist and author of "Techniques of Pleasure."
 
 
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A young African-American woman walked onstage, led by a white man holding a leash attached to a collar around her neck. “As he spoke, he yanked up her dress to display her shaved genitals, and he then turned her around,” writes anthropologist Margot Weiss. “Still holding her dress above her waist, he smacked her ass so hard she pitched forward; the leash attached to the collar around her neck stopped her fall.”

Then the bidding began.

This scene from a BDSM “slave auction” — before a predominantly white audience – makes for one of the most viscerally challenging passages in “Techniques of Pleasure,” Weiss’ book-length investigation of San Francisco’s kink community, although there are other examples, ranging from father-daughter incest to Nazi guard-prisoner scenarios. These encounters aren’t described in much detail — instead, they’re used as passing evidence of the depths of politically incorrect play that she observed, or heard about, during the three years spent observing this world.

Most kinksters see such “scenes” as standing apart from racism, sexism and all manner of ugliness that happens in the real world — but Weiss does not. “The fantasy of the scene as a safe space of private desire justifies and reinforces certain social inequalities,” she argues. The truth, she says, is that S/M “depends for its erotic power on precisely these real-world relations, within which it is given form and content.”

That said, Weiss objects to the idea that this sort of sexual make-believe is “the same as the violence that it mimes,” as some BDSM critics argue. Instead, Weiss looks at how particular scenes, whether it’s a slave auction or make-believe child abuse, affect the people participating, watching or (here’s looking at you) reading about it.

She also zeroes in on the contradictions of kink: “On the one hand, SM is figured as outlaw: as transgressive of normative sexual values,” Weiss writes. “On the other hand, SM is dependent on social norms: practitioners draw on social hierarchies to produce SM scenes.” The mostly-white, mostly-middle-class community is itself an example of real-world social inequality: ”These [sexual] experiments are more possible and more accessible to those with class, race and gender privilege: heterosexual men playing with sexism, white bodies at a charity slave auction, professional information technology (IT) workers with several rooms filled with custom-made bondage toys.”

Speaking of toys, she further questions S/M’s “outlaw” status by painting a portrait of a social network built on capitalism and consumerism: Just consider the rainbow’s array of classes (on everything from spanking to rope bondage) and fetish toys (from handcuffs to latex vacuum beds) that practitioners can, and are to some degree expected to, invest in. BDSM is not as transgressive as most assume, says Weiss.

As you’ve probably gathered, “Techniques of Pleasure” is a smart, but not particularly sexy, read. It’s light on kinky lingo and heavy on the academic jargon. So, I got Weiss, an assistant anthropology professor at Wesleyan University, on the phone for a more relaxed chat about the ambivalent politics of the BDSM community.

You write in the book about your initial surprise at your first BDSM event that everyone seemed so darned “normal” and “wholesome.” How so?

It was definitely not what I expected. There were way more heterosexual people and they were older than I thought they would be. They were wearing not the most cutting-edge fetish outfits — they weren’t all black leather and riding in on their motorcycles. I realized then that these were people that I was comfortable with, they were professional-class people. They weren’t the radical people I expected to find: They were more like my colleagues or like my parents.

 
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