Foucault and the Erotic Construction of Power Exchange

In Foucault, Power play, Sexuality, Social theory on 15 July, 2010 at 03:06

“To most people, power is a political, economic, or social phenomenon which often entails the assertion of superiority over others for personal or group gain. But to D&Sers, the power exchange between lovers is a fundamental source of erotic excitement, shared by equals, and is often an intellectually enlightening experience.”

Although many once-considered deviant sexual practices are beginning to achieve a degree of public awareness and understanding, certain behaviors such as BDSM (bondage and discipline & sadism and masochism), also known as D&S (dominance and submission), continue to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. The non-conventional/ non-conservative sexual engagements of BDSM/D&S are viewed by the dominant culture (the capitalist conservative right) to be pathological, deviant, abusive, and problematic. I wish to propose that this viewpoint is a popular misconception brought on by unfamiliarity or miseducation of what those forms of sexual activity entail as well the as reasons why people choose to engage in these activities.

A. Theory

Foucaultian theory of modern sexuality posits a particular relationship between science, sexuality, and truth by stating that the confessional science of sex (scientia sexualis) consists of/is legitimated due to a) the development of methods to extract confessions of sexual behavior, b) sex as a cause or explanation for extensive variety of behavior extending far beyond that of sexuality itself, c) sexuality as latent within the individual, and d) medicalization and therapeutic treatment of “sexual deviances.” Foucault proposes that the main discourse relationships surrounding sexuality are based around those of sex and confession, with its intent to draw out human faults and flaws, and sex and science, with its association with knowledge and truth. These are said to combine to lead to view of sexual discourse as suspect yet knowledge-imparting, allowing for self-discovery.

BDSM activities are analyzed here in the context of their peculiar relationship to Foucaultian sexuality theory, as simultaneously following and subverting both principles of scientia sexualis as well as that of biopower (the techniques for subjugating and controlling bodies and populations through the binary systemics of scientific classification and disciplinary power).

B. Purpose

“What clinicians have not explored is the main source of pleasure for the sexual submissive: a transcendent delight in surrender.” [Brame, 73]

Though BDSM practices are as a whole misunderstood and require reassessment of predominant theorizations and data gathering methods, the scope of this particular assessment by necessity requires narrowness and specificity. Therefore, the focus (though often requiring explanation of and reflecting back upon the multiplicity of BDSM activities) is that of the essence and seemingly most misunderstood aspect of D&S practices: that of sexual power exchange, of dominance and submission. Sexual submission is often mistakenly seen at one end as a moderately bizarre and incomprehensible practice by those with low self-esteem, weakness, passivity and regressed sexuality and at the other end as either an inherent behavior of victims or a pathological sexual deviance, it is rarely seen for what it most often is: a paradoxical surrendering of personal power and responsibility that leads to an experience of intense sexual fulfillment, relaxation, and transcendence. The public equally confuses sexual dominance with pathological sadism, though in practice a clear delineation between the two exists: the desire to cause physical pain in others is not in reality the true objective for sexual dominants, but the display of power and responsibility over/for another and the psychological and emotional benefits are.

The main purpose of this assessment is to briefly survey some (but note not all) of the reasons why people participate in sexual dominance and submission such as attaining relief or, conversely, acceptance of complete personal and sexual responsibility as well as guilt, attainment of psychological satisfaction, and socioemotive benefits such as community acceptance, self-knowledge, and emotional gratification. In addition, I wish to point out common misconceptions such as BDSM behaviors being indicative of pathological illness, and in the end, to enlighten the public in a general sense as to what precisely D&S behaviors entail and why they are practiced.

C. BDSM/D&S Defined

“The English language does not make the distinction between the criminal sadist who enjoys causing desperate agony in a victim and the sexual sadist who seeks romantic fulfillment with an eager and consenting partner. Thus, some D&Sers wish to change the negative connotations of sadomasochist and use the word as a proudly political statement. Others prefer to use the slightly less controversial terms dominance and submission (D&S) or bondage and discipline (B&D).” [Brame, 47]

Despite much disagreement and many subtleties existing surrounding specific terminology, the various terms regarding bondage and discipline or dominance and submission are used interchangeably. As a whole, D&S/B&D/S&M/BDSM consists of a polymorphously defined set of symbolic sexual behaviors relating to power play and exchange, which may include various forms of immobilization, pain infliction, servitude, or psychological stimulation. Though in nonsexual contexts these acts are at the least uncomfortable and at the most harmful and abusive, in consensual, sexual contexts they are seen by practitioners as desirable and as methods to sexually arouse and/or enhance (and sometimes replace) intercourse and other commonplace sexual activities.

“Social involvement in D&S and fetishism generally require leisure time and disposable income [and] while sexual dominance or submission indubitably occurs in all economic classes, the organized D&S scene’s emphasis on education and networking probably appeals most to the middle class.” [Brame, 11]

Though BDSM activities undoubtedly occur among a wide variety of socioeconomic classes, the vast majority of participants observed at public workshops and events belong to what would be classified as college-educated, upper middle-class, white-collar workers and professionals. It appears as though having a higher educational background in many cases may lead to greater acceptance of a wider variety of sexual behaviors and therefore a greater freedom to act upon seemingly non-mainstream desires. In addition, this demographic is considered to have a greater amount of leisure time and expendable income available for attendance at social events and for the purchase of toys, costumes, and vacations to D&S-oriented conventions in other locales. They are also most likely to join organizations surrounding a specific leisure activity.

It is interesting to note that the middle class is considered the most “mainstream” of Americans, the standard whereby social norms are developed and compared, yet in this case it is a subset of the “mainstream” population that is participating in the most “deviant” of sexual activities. D&S attracts many people who except for this interest belong completely to the mainstream (though there are certainly exceptions to this). There is an intriguing duality present in that this population is breaking a solid, well-entrenched social taboo, yet is engaging in behaviors and fantasies that in milder forms are widely prevalent (such as tying a partner up with scarves or teasingly “demanding” a partner to do something), though this aspect goes unrecognized in the population at large.

In many ways BDSM also embodies the middle class Protestant American work ethic, modifying the idea of sexuality from something that simply occurs to something that must be cultivated and worked at. “The time and energy participants devote to SM is connected to the ways BDSM is understood, by practitioners, to be a form of work or labor. As BDSM has become more mainstream, more organizationally focused and more middle-class, practitioners work on their SM in self-conscious ways, mobilizing American discourses of self-improvement, actualization and education…by couching various pleasures as work on the self, SM can be located within an American tradition of self-development.” [Weiss, 235,241]

Demographics may play a part in the needs and desires for the socioemotive benefits of sexual sadomasochism. Is there a need to break from social conformity in sexual/relationship structures and norms? Is it possible that there is an element of guilt or a search for fulfillment of a gap in understanding as the middle class is considered to have less knowledge of pain in everyday life, such as hunger and humiliation?

An oft-repeated common misconception is of sexually submissive individuals as submissive in all aspects of life – a viewpoint typically ascribed to females as indicative of an exaggeration of certain socially proscribed roles and behaviors. On the contrary, most individuals who partake in sexual submission leave that role primarily or solely in the realm of these bracketed behaviors, but in the remainder of their lives are strong and often rather powerful and responsible. As Brame (1993:54) states: “The submissive in a consensual relationship does not relinquish social or professional power, nor is she likely to accept authority from anyone but her dominant.” In fact, many practitioners have discovered that BDSM practices have allowed them to grow as individuals in ways they would not have been able to otherwise: “People go to assertiveness training to be more assertive in their lives. I think I learned that from D&S. I [put] that in practice at my job and in my life. I feel surer of myself; I feel better about myself. I get more accomplished now [by] being more forceful and more assertive…I think that’s why it’s been so satisfying in my life to be a dominant. I can be in control of something; I can get a lot of satisfaction out of making things happen.” and “S/M said, ‘You have the power to make choices for what happens in your life, and here’s how you do it: say, This is what I need. You have the power to make choices, and this is how you do it: negotiate.’ So, while feminism told me to act in certain ways, S/M actually showed me how.” [Brame, 63-65]

The key, all-important element of the D&S scene, the division between constructive use and deconstructive abuse of these activities, is the emphasis on informed consent and safety. Most participants perceive behaviors to be unhealthy if they do not adequately incorporate an awareness of consent. “Clear, informed, and verbalized consent is the moral dividing line between brutality and D&S. Partners must voluntarily and knowingly give full consent to D&S activity before it begins… Abuses are rarely tolerated: Dominants who mistreat submissives will be openly criticized or ostracized.” [Brame, 53] In addition, what is often unperceived by casual onlookers are the extensive cautionary methods undertaken by practitioners to ensure the safety of all participants, and the social ostracism that may occur if such measures are not followed. Many (perhaps most socially active members) participate in a variety of workshops and classes on methods and techniques of specific sexual practices, which serve not only to uphold a community standard of safety, but also to improve the social status and desirability as a partner of those with advanced knowledge and skills.

D. Prior Analyses

“There is a significant difference between the etic and emic literature on submission, dominance and S/M practices. The emic literature explicitly addresses the religious parallels and overtones within the leather community…the etic literature, on the other hand, focuses primarily on two aspects of S/M culture: 1) perversion, and 2) power relations.” [Zussman, 17]

“[Science is] made up of evasions since, given its inability or refusal to speak of sex itself, it concerned itself with aberrations, perversions, exceptional oddities, pathological abatements, and morbid aggravations.” [Foucault, 53]

Foucault’s repressive hypothesis states that sexual expression has been suppressed as socioeconomic (capitalistic) and religious patterns (sex as sin, need for confession) shifted toward emphasizing the purely reproductive function of sex and devaluation of the variety of non-utilitarian sexual activities and functions (as a waste of workers’ energy). Allowance of specific sexual outlets such as prostitution allow for pseudo-socially acceptable outlets for extramarital, non-reproductive (and therefore “deviant”) sexual behavior. Foucault rejects this perspective, instead claiming that though the repressive hypothesis appears to be true, in actuality, through a series of accidental events and trends throughout history a system of blatant discourse surrounding sexuality has arisen, but due to the manner in which it is spoken of only on the surface appears to be suppressive. In other words, he doubts that sexual repression has actually occurred in this manner and can be historically traced. He also expresses doubt that power is expressed through sexual repression and that the past ages of repression and that of modern criticism of repression are separate.

Unwittingly having followed Foucault’s repressive hypothesis in the past, the predominant perspective was that of the psychoanalytic assessment of D&S behavior as pathological illness stemming from perversion of the norm of sexuality. This begs an assessment of what the norm really is, particularly as the cultural climate allows individuals to be more open about such behaviors – perhaps it really is becoming more predominant in the population, in addition to people becoming more open to expressing it. Either way, it is a rather common set of sexual practices which logically leads to a redefinition of “normal” sexual behavior.

One thought often addressed by practitioners of D&S is the duality and seemingly only surface disparities between D&S behavior and what is thought of as a normal, heterosexual, vanilla relationship: Are vanilla relationships and adherence to the subtle yet pervasive proscribed roles really any different from D&S explicit, exaggerated, outward display of chosen roles?

In reality, BDSM behaviors are seen by practitioners as well as those peripherally involved or enlightened to the practice as voluntary play, not a pathological illness. It is a tool to attain a degree of personal liberation and sexual pleasure – most sexual masochists do not particularly enjoy pain in and of itself, but utilize it to achieve a higher purpose – a higher state of consciousness and intensity of sexuality.

Note that the bias in the past held by psychiatrists and others who had studied sexual sadomasochists was in part due to their handling people who often were troubled and seeking treatment, and though individuals with these traits are occasionally present in the scene, they are relatively rare (due to social mechanisms), as well as personal biases of professionals as to what constitutes normal sexual variation.

II. Relief from / Acceptance of Responsibility:

BDSM enthusiasts utilize specific activities such as corporal punishment as a means to obtaining permission to experience sexuality. These activities often become mechanisms to override societally-induced psychological and emotional blocks, to come to terms with and move beyond sexual guilt complexes.

A. Submission:

“The predominant truism in D&S culture is that the sexual submissive is usually someone who, in daily life, has weighty responsibilities…which comes first is unknown: the submissive impulse, which may lead one to overcompensate in adulthood by pursuing high-power careers, or stressful careers, which lead individuals to seek an outlet in submission.” [Brame, 74]

Sexual submission allows for an outlet for stress by letting go of personal responsibility (someone else gets to make the decisions and take complete care of the submissive), which allows one to no longer have concern for making mistakes. It allows the individual to experience being fully present in the moment, to appreciate physical sensations and the sexual experience as a whole. “It is the bondage which is sweet, for you relinquish free will and all decision making – it is freedom which is bitter and most hard to endure, for you must take responsibility for your actions.” [Zussman, 35]

Relief from sexual responsibility and guilt also plays a key role: “…for some…the psychodrama of coercion – in which the dominant, albeit consensually, “forces” them to accept erotic activity – relieves their individual responsibility for sexual desire. When lust is viewed as a shameful moral flaw, erotic coercion helps the submissive to surrender to sexual pleasure.” [Brame, 73] Many submissives report intense feelings of relief from guilt in both religious and social contexts: “[Having been] taught that sex is bad, I’ve wondered if perhaps the only way I can enjoy it is if I’m completely tied down and helpless. Because, if I’m helpless, I can’t stop the person from doing that terrible sexual scene to me; I can’t help it if I came, because I’m tied down, and he made me come.” [Brame, 73] It is helpful to remember that feelings of sexual guilt also exist in the general population for various reasons, and is for example common among women who are unable to fully enjoy receiving cunnilingus due to feelings of guilt for not simultaneously reciprocating, which may vastly reduce their sexual response. Contrast that with men’s seemingly greater ability to completely enjoy sexual moments, particularly when receiving oral sex.

B. Dominance:

Sexual dominance creates an ultimate ego trip in the ability to have complete responsibility for another person’s well being, in being absolutely sure that all of their needs are met, as the submissive often cannot meet them him/herself. The great pleasure in dominance is the enjoyment of dependence and emotional bareness of the submissive for the duration of play. The power that comes with the responsibility over another person’s sexual pleasure – the ability to give or withhold it – is part of the great satisfaction of the dominant in a power play relationship : “Tops speak of sexual gratification which may result through the act of binding, flogging, and watching the bottom transform under their guidance.” [Zussman, 27]

III. Socioemotive Benefits:

A. Self-Knowledge:

“If you’re an ordinary person having ordinary intercourse, there are a lot of questions you never have to address about who you are, who your partner is, what issues of control [exist]. When you leave the world of vanilla sex – particularly the heterosexual vanilla world – you have to start asking [such] questions of yourself. Doing so opens up the opportunity, or presents the problem, of consciousness, of growing in selfknowledge.” [Brame, 89]

Many D&Sers consider one of the greatest advantages and reasons to participate in sexual power exchange to be the ability to expand knowledge of one’s sexuality – orientation and identity, likes and dislikes, testing of the bounds of personal strength and willpower, and their individual capacities within the extensive boundaries of sexual expression. It also allows for a high degree of experimentation: with physical sensitivity and different kinds of touch, various kinds of relationships and bonds with others, as well as a testing of personal limits. “…you can just…do things that feel good and that are a lot of fun and that push your limits. To see what you can actually take. And for me it’s a case of what I can take and whether I can convert that sensation into something enjoyable. So, there is a lot of…personal combat and willpower involved.” [Beckmann, 88]

An oft-heard semi-humorous statement in the BDSM community surrounds the idea of expansion of personal limits – it is often stated that when someone views a particular sexual act at a social event as uncomfortable and states that they cannot understand why another would participate in/subject another person to it, they will probably be partaking in that very same act within six months. This statement appears to hold more than a grain of truth. Many participants find their tastes and comfort in a variety of D&S activities continually expanding as they discover more about themselves and their bodies and seek to continue that process of discovery. For example, many individuals begin their BDSM activities experimenting with light physical bondage (such as being minimally tied up) and advance to heavier physical bondage (such as complete physical immobilization) and subsequent combined physical and psychological bondage (mind games in addition to immobilization) as their comfort level with the sensations, accouterments, advancing skill level, as well as their self-discovery reaches ever-expanding limitations.

B. Emotional Gratification:

One of the greatest benefits for D&S practitioners involves the emotional connections forged with others in the course of their activities and sexual explorations. Submission, for example, requires one to have very high, intimate levels of trust with those allowed to dominate, and to have the capacity to comfortably relinquish control over their body and give another person responsibility for their personal safety and well-being. “…submission in a D&S context is one of the rare times when the revelation of one’s deepest and most forbidden sexual desires is not merely tolerated but is lovingly encouraged and rewarded…This acceptance often makes the submissives feel very grateful toward the understanding and concerned dominant.” [Brame, 76]

This emotional drama of acceptance sometimes occurs with those who have little trust for others in daily life, but the peculiar circumstances of the activities and social mechanisms enforcing appropriately safe behavior allow for this therapeutic level of intimate emotional connection to form.

The potentially dangerous nature of many BDSM activities forces intense interpersonal communication to become a necessary feature of safe play. This high level of communication, rare among the general population, is also a vital component of emotional gratification due to its role in catalyzing emotional bonds between individuals. Many participants consider this to be one of many reasons why, in their opinion, SM activities are superior to standard vanilla hetero-normative sexual relationships: “Empathy is more crucial in consensual ‘SM’ than in ‘ordinary sex’ as consensual ‘SM’ depends directly on the communication between the partners. . . you can have all of that excitement in a place where you’re feeling trust and where you’re feeling safe, and where you’re getting intense sensation and where you’re communicating on a very intense level with the other person…that’s what people want from sex, isn’t it?” [Beckmann, 81-82]

C. Community:

“A large part of the pleasure of being an SM practitioner is belonging to the SM community…at once deeply personal and deeply communal, identity and practice, BDSM highlights the limitations of thinking sex as only identity, or as a set of stable taxonomies based on sex-gender-sexuality. BDSM sexuality is a polymodal combination of identity, orientation, lifestyle, hobby and practice, based around a community.” [Weiss, 234]

BDSM communities are viewed by many – if not most – of their serious social participants as a source of group esteem and identity. They often maintain a tribal form of organization with advocates, spokespeople, and seniors as leaders and spiritual guides to the rest of the community. The community relationships may be seen as a contemporary version of a chosen, extended family.

Entry into the community appears to most frequently occur either a) once an individual’s personal desires and fantasies become so compelling that one ignores anxieties about being discovered and searches out organizations or individuals who appear to share interest in particular BDSM activities, or b) are introduced through friends or lovers. Social class and privileged knowledge play a relatively significant role in entry, as one needs to have access to forms of communication or personal social contacts to make the formal introduction into the community itself. Initiation and acceptance into the community may take form as either formal memberships into organizations (which frequently require introductory educational workshops and a fee to join) or a more gradual informal acceptance as one participates in community activities (increasing public visibility) and makes social contacts. It is possible to advance in status and reputation within the community through this process, as well as by accepting organizational and teaching positions. Involuntary exit from the community often involves social ostracization and informal excommunication through inappropriate behaviors, i.e.: ignoring house rules set by the establishment the activity/event is taking place in and/or violating another individual’s personal boundaries.

Knowledge of BDSM ars erotica circulates on multiple levels, both formal and informal. Organizations such as the Society of Janus and The Exiles, both operating out of San Francisco, hold regular seminars and workshops relating to specific activities and aspects of BDSM, some in a formal classroom-type lecture setting, others in hands-on technique-based workshops.

Erotic knowledge also passes in a more traditional sense from “sage” to “novice” within and extending beyond the realm of personal relationships and private social events, where experiential knowledge may be verbally transmitted or experienced via personal stories, personal opinions, thoughts and philosophies.

Communication on multiple levels also occurs in online communities where individual social networks as well as formal clubs and organizations maintain discussions relating to specific sexual and sensual issues, as well as building and maintaining friendships and communicating upcoming events.

Online communities also typically maintain informational databases and other resources to aid in community education and outreach, with the intent of becoming important educational resources for those interested in BDSM requiring introduction and information, as well as to dispel myths of what BDSM is and is not to the general public.

Although much overlap exists, there are trends in levels of organization in relationship to location in BDSM activities. Encounters take place in hierarchies of experience from the private to public realms. Associated differences in structure and activities occur in relation to location (and therefore degree of public/social exposure), ranging from individuals at home and small, private “play parties” at the most exclusive level, to organizational events, then to
themed nightclubs and other events such as the Folsom Street Fair at the most public level. This hierarchical structure of events allows individuals to express and display their sexuality at differing levels of public exposure.

IV. The Dichotomy of BDSM as the Disruptor as well as Epitome of Foucaultian Biopower & Scientia sexualis

“The social construction of ‘sadomasochism’ was part of the ‘deployment of sexuality’ which did not operate by means only of repression but more effectively in terms of productive power relations working throughout the whole social body. The discourses and practices comprising the Western ‘scientia sexualis’ (e.g.: psychiatry, psychology, and sexology) aimed at reproducing sociopolitical power relationships by means of the authoritative character of the expert discourses that constituted the ‘new species’ of ‘perverts,’ one of which was the ‘sadomasochist.’” [Beckmann, 66]

According to Foucault’s analysis, sex has ceased to be discussed in a playful, jovial manner and instead has become something to be spoken solemnly with scientific vocabulary, linguistically indicating the shift from sexuality as pleasurable to sexuality as science. He proposes that despite this, sexual discourse has attained much greater frequency as the narrowing of expression has allowed for greater specificity and detail; the majority of the increase in discourse has focused on exploration of non-reproductive, conservative “deviances” and sexual “perversions.” Foucault suggests that an interesting result of the focus on perversities has been a massive explosion of practice and increasing multiplicity of those perversities. BDSM certainly falls within the definition of Foucault’s sexual perversities – it almost completely bypasses the concept of sex as reproduction (in fact it is blatantly referred to as “play”) and instead focuses on the multiplicity of sensations and behaviors outside of and in both direct and indirect relationship to traditional sex. SM practice as a whole is a unique sexual perversity in that it simultaneously falls completely within and yet is diametrically opposed to Foucaultian concepts of biopower and scientia sexualis.

A. Biopower:

“SM should be understood in terms of biopower (a power to produce, regulate, and control human life), and I read contemporary biopower as both a practice of the self/subject and a modality of late-capitalism.” [Weiss, 2]

Biopower is the form of power replacing historical right of death (power to proscribe death to any individual or population) held by a sovereign; it instead takes form as control over the life of a population or individual – to encourage/foster or forbid/disallow it. Seen by Foucault to be responsible for the rise of capitalism, biopower describes a political ideology that defines and becomes the nexus of western cultural socio-politico-economic system of population control. Intended as a general social principle, biopower holds additional meaning when specifically applied to sexuality.

BDSM practices perfectly exemplify biopower through the deliberate exploration and mimicry of the practices of modern states and their regulation of their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.” (History of Sexuality, Volume I, p140) Practitioners utilize some of the very same methods of subjugation and control taken to the most obvious, deliberate level, such as discipline “through scholarly learning and reflection on tactics, apprenticeship, education, and the nature of societies.” (History of Sexuality, Volume I, p140) As previously stated, SM communities place great emphasis on each of those principles: formal education on theory, relationships, control, and techniques in the form of workshops and lectures, contemplation of societal and psychological principles and their relation to BDSM play, as well as emphasis on professional-novice teaching relationships.

In addition, SM practices are “indication[s] of an increased emphasis on self-policing and self-control” [Weiss, 3], exemplary of and distortions of the modern reincarnation of the Protestant work and Victorian moral ethics.

“SM draws on the existent power dynamics, but restages, makes visible, or re-creates these social relations. This reiteration also disturbs tidy analytical categorizations of sexual/non-sexual, dominant/nondominant, liberating/constraining, and real/play…SM relies on, yet also resignifies, stable structures of social inequality that co-produce subjects in relation to social difference and power.”
[Weiss, 2]

SM practices oppose the concept of biopower by playing with the idea of returning to a power structure resembling a sovereign’s historical right of death by handing over to an individual – through the specific, well-defined control mechanisms of informed consent, contractual boundary delimitation and safety considerations – the ability to, in a theatrical and sexually-charged setting, directly punish an individual for their transgressions and create the illusion of having the capacity to harm or terminate them at will.

BDSM is also disruptive to the internalized surveillance pole of biopower as individuals relinquish surveillance and self-control within specific preconceived boundaries, allowing for freedom from self-monitoring by removing disciplinary power from the realm of the self to another (pseudo-sovereign) individual.

B. Scientia sexualis:

A concept in stark contrast to the top-down transmission (from the learned to the novice) of knowledge of sensual pleasure and experience (or ars erotica) of other cultures, scientia sexualis is the confessional (or bottom-up; from the unlearned to the privileged professional) approach of intellectual sexual knowledge in the West. This is reflective of the differing attitude surrounding sex in modern Western culture, as not of a cherished, secretive wisdom passed from sage to novice, but of a confession of guilty secrets given to one holding greater power than oneself. Foucault describes this as a culturally-constructed coercive demand that has become acceptable and permeates our society to a degree of our believing it to be liberating.

In the most obvious sense, BDSM practices utilize confessional techniques to initiate sexual arousal and release. These techniques may be verbal or nonverbal, such as with interrogation reenactment scenes encouraging (demanding) an individual to confess to their guilty pleasures and taboo sexual desires. Common themes of this nature include confessing to masturbation, desiring to or having sexual relations with a socially unacceptable individual, or confessing to being “dirty” or a “whore” due to other socially unacceptable desires. This confession of sexual “sins” is, following the concept of scientia sexualis as liberation, a method of extraction of guilt. This verbal and active discourse becomes knowledge-imparting for practitioners through its ability to foster self-discovery.

In other ways, SM practices follow much closer the Eastern traditional pattern of sexual knowledge transmission (ars erotica) from the learned/knowledgeable to the novice. It does this through both community knowledge-sharing techniques as well as a renewal of the idea of sex as creative act and experience, as a form of nonreproductive sex, of play. As Weiss notes (following Geertz), BDSM play is both a reflection of social tensions acted out in a safe manner as well as a space bracketed from the everyday. “Deep play…is play with dangerously high stakes, capable of dislocating actors from the social field…expressing status tensions (which could not be directly expressed) in game or play form also has an impact on ‘real’ social structures” [Weiss, 236]

V. Transformative Experience

“To the outsider, there is no external logic…but the internal logic is indisputable, if one assumes that the mind is a person’s most erotic tool.” [Brame, 81]

Hopefully it has become clear that sexual dominance and submission practices are not indicative of pathological illness but are instead highly sophisticated and refined methods of achieving a multiplicity of sexual, psychological, and emotional catharses. These include but are not limited to obtaining relief or acceptance of complete personal responsibility as well as guilt, attainment of psychological satisfaction, and socioemotive benefits such as community acceptance, self-knowledge, and emotional gratification.

Involvement in these activities often occurs within the context of a well-defined community with their own set of rules and guidelines involving admission, social advancement within the community, and upon transgression of those rules, expulsion. The BDSM community seeks to maintain its high degree of organization and maintainence of a privileged body of knowledge transmitted through formal social clubs, workshops, and lectures, and uses these as tools for social cohesion.

BDSM is also particularly intriguing in the context of social theories such as Foucault’s ideas of biopower and scientia sexualis, both of which it falls completely within and yet opposes for various reasons.

The SM community and their activities serve an important role in the lives of their participants as a past social structure is used to create a sexualized, play-oriented method of achieving sexual fulfillment, psychological and emotional relaxation in which decisions and distractions are eliminated, and spiritual and social needs are met.


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  18. Ussher, Jane
    1997 Body Talk: The Material & Discursive Regulation of Sexuality, Madness and Reproduction
    New York, New York: Routledge.
  19. Weinberg, Thomas and G.W. Levi Kamel
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  20. Weiss, Margot D.
    2006 Working at Play: BDSM Sexuality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
    Anthropologica 48: 229-245.2007 Techniques of Pleasure, Scenes of Pain: SM in the San Francisco Bay Area
    Under contract with Duke University Press (revised manuscript will be delivered December 1, 2007)
  21. Zussman, Mira
    1998 Shifts of Consciousness in Consensual S/M, Bondage, and Fetish Play
    Anthropology of Consciousness 9(4):15-38.

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