I’d wanted an O-ring collar for quite some time — the kind the sex slave heroine wears in Histoire d’O, the classic sadomasochistic erotic novel by Anne Desclos — so last Sunday I went to the leather shop in Greenwich Village and got one. I’m very happy with the purchase. It’s beautifully well made, and leather, of course, with a stainless steel buckle and a shiny O-ring on the front, perfect for roughhousing and for clipping on a chain lead, one of which I also purchased. My total came to $87.00, including tax. A new 30-foot coil of red bondage rope brought the day’s spending to $107.00.
At the store I could have also bought, had I the cash flow, any variety of crops, floggers, paddles, chastity devices, anal hooks, hogties, cock rings, harnesses, cuffs, and pretty much any other implement you might use to restrain, punish, pleasure, and otherwise happily titillate any willing partner. It was a wonderland of kinky goods and I wanted all of them. There is a reason sex toys are referred to as toys: it’s fun to shop for them, and they’re profitable.
At Babeland, a high-end, very sanitary sex store with several locations, you can stick to the colorful assortment of silicone vibrators and dildos that masquerade as something-else-but-undeniably-a-sex-toy, or you can buy any number of 50 Shades of Grey branded accoutrements: blindfolds, “Christian Grey’s tie,” even a very normal-looking vibrator, all christened with a movie tie-in. It’s a little funny, right? How transparent the brand is? Look at all the olds and newbies exploring BDSM by way of a movie tie-in. I’ve been there for ages, which makes me edgy and authentic!
Relatedly, I’ve noticed an impulse to covertly advertise one’s kink, as though it’s membership in a very cool and exclusive club, provided it’s socially acceptable and subversive-sexy, as BDSM so conveniently is. Now that we’ve pulled back the curtain on sex — a little, America will always be its Puritan self — it’s hip to be the right kind of kinky. Nobody likes to say they’re into scat, but casually mention you’re into, hmmm, leather, or being tied up, or maybe you like to tie big strong men up and isn’t that radical and alternative? Plus, kink is hip now, but you were totally hogtying dudes long before E. L. James even started her sexyfanfiction.doc.
In truth, BDSM is not inherently radical or alternative. It’s just a way of having sex, like taking it from the back or 69-ing or pretending you’re both cute little puppies rutting around in the snow. It’s tempting to think of your sex making you somehow superior because you’ve managed to achieve pleasure in certain ways, but that’s not really how it works. God, their sex must be so vanilla, I once said about a couple I disliked. In reality, it’s just a matter of taste, like proclaiming you enjoy Godard over Tarantino.
After all, what’s the difference between buying a leather collar because some nasty French lady wrote about it 60 years ago and buying a branded pair of handcuffs because E. L. James got some married couples wishing they’d experimented more in college? BDSM is, yes, a specific way of having sex that can be incredibly emotionally charged as well as emotionally satisfying, provided you do it with the right person under the right conditions. (More on this later.) But BDSM is also a luxury hobby, like climbing or golf, marketed to specific demographics. To get membership into the club — which will make you sexy if you want to be sexy, alternative if you want to be alternative, subversive if you want to be subversive — you need to have the right gear, the right tools, and it doesn’t hurt if you look a certain way, too.
In her book on the BDSM community in San Francisco, Techniques of Pleasure, anthropologist Margot Weiss frequently notes the community’s paradoxically upper-middle class, white-bread constituency, which runs counter to the “counterculture” aura of BDSM itself. Though it seems alternative, BDSM is — at least on the most public face of it — a way of sex that is only advertised to and by people who look a certain way; that is, white or white passing, often heterosexual, able-bodied people. In the same way that Asian and interracial porn have their own categories, where race and its associations become an aspect of what desire looks like, the default models of BDSM must be white.
Can you imagine an interracial BDSM scene on the big screen — say, a black woman and an Asian man? Of course not. A scene like that would be far too complicated once you put race in it! Think of all the associations! It’d be no fun at all! A black woman’s body is so loaded. Asian masculinity is so loaded. BDSM is a fun site of exploration, but it’s really only that simple for people whose bodies afford them the sexual privilege to experiment.
Some bodies are free of associations. That’s why porn with young white people in it is just regular porn, and everything else has a category on Pornhub. However, not everyone has that privilege. I’ll use my own experiences as an example. I love BDSM. I’ve learned a lot from it and I very much enjoy it and yes, I do put money into it. But I’m acutely aware that the eroticism of BDSM itself rests on structures that daily cause me pain, and not in the fun way. It’s not a coincidence that the main relationships we see in mass media are dom/sub (D/s) relationships between heterosexual men and women. In 50 Shades, it’s a D/s relationship with a dominant man and submissive woman — the hotter variation, because depicting a submissive man still feels faintly ridiculous.
At the risk of sounding like a hand-wringing lesbian separatist from the ’70s, when you play the role of a submissive woman, you kind of are getting off on your own subjugation. There’s nothing wrong with eroticizing this, of course! The paradox of it is what makes it arousing, or rather, the safety of knowing that the symbolism is intact but the intent is pleasure makes it arousing. You wouldn’t want to be hit for real, but being hit for play is fun. Margot Weiss describes this risk management as a neoliberal understanding of sexuality, where individual choice reigns over the structures but also leaves them in place.
Let me repeat that in a different way: BDSM does not dismantle patriarchal structures. The structures it is based on are inherently oppressive; that is, they caused pain at some point, even if the bite has been removed and only the symbol remains. It is possible to play and learn and heal and grow. It is also possible to play and feel terrible.
I’m a submissive. I like it. I like the place I go to in my head when someone who knows my needs pushes me to the edge of what I can do. But I also know that the submission I like to experience — a little name calling, rough play — is very similar to the kind of treatment a body like mine receives whether I’ve asked for it or not. Asian women are no strangers to objectification. There’s a fine line between being willfully played with and being used. When I practice BDSM, I’m constantly navigating that line. My body and my experiences set me up on an uneven playing field for the start. There’s no tabula rasa. I can’t experience the sensations as though they’re apolitical. I’m asking myself: Is this okay? Does this remind you of something bad that happened to you before?
By nature, BDSM requires, along with gear, an understanding between practitioners. If you’re going to play with a partner and have them put in you dangerous positions — tie you up, restrict your breathing — you should probably trust that person to take care of you after. Having the emotional support to get through a scene and debrief once it’s over is referred to in the community as aftercare. When people don’t have this understanding and support, BDSM can be incredibly traumatic and even abusive — hence the very legitimate fear of many BDSM practitioners that 50 Shades of Grey’s representation of bad behaviors will lead to harmful encounters between people who have no idea what they’re doing.
The emotional effects of BDSM also mean that it’s much more complicated if you happen to have a body or carry trauma that makes sex itself complicated. From Techniques of Pleasure:
Neoliberalism — the solidification of understandings of privacy and privatization, personal responsibility, free choice, and individual agency and autonomy within market logics — simultaneously produces social belonging via community and legitimates social hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality and class within communities organized in this way.
The way BDSM operates now, structures aren’t disposed to change. When you react to being dominated, or to dominating, you are reacting to existing structures of power in the world. A woman who dominates does so because she wants to feel the things that domination makes her feel. If dominating didn’t make her feel anything, she wouldn’t do it. The fact that she feels something means that the structure remains in place. Can you subvert it in your play? Of course, and it happens often, and it can be invigorating and exciting and wonderful. (After all, there’s queer BDSM too.) But you did that. You changed it for yourself. That’s something that all people are capable of doing, inside and outside of an “official” BDSM practice.
BDSM is just like any other kind of sex, subject to the same kinds of complications and problems and marketing that any other kind of sex brings up. It’s subject to the same responsibilities, the same emotional effects, the same complexities. It’s a luxury hobby, not a cure-all nor a panacea. When you’re empowered by BDSM, it’s not because the act itself is inherently radical, feminist, unfeminist, whatever. It’s just sex — with all the potential and excitement and joy and pain that sex holds.
Now, if you want to talk about radical sex . . . let’s talk about comprehensive sex education in high schools nationwide. Let’s talk about how we live in an era of sexual permissiveness but have no good models for that permissiveness. Let’s talk about how people treat each other. Let’s talk about loving the parts of ourselves that people don’t want to talk about. That’s radical as hell.