Women's perspectives of BDSM power exchange.

Author:Prior, Emily E.
Position::Bondage, discipline, dominance and submission - Report
 
FREE EXCERPT

INTRODUCTION

BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominant/submissive, sadist/masochist) power exchange relationships can be used to discuss the intersections of power and identity. Third wave feminism can also be used to discuss women's sexual identities and power by expanding the definition of this type of feminism to include women who choose alternative sexual practices and identities as a means of expressing themselves more authentically and fulfilling their sexual and emotional needs. Although some of these women may seem to be engaging in traditional submissive or subordinate sexual roles, BDSM allows women in these roles and in the dominant or top sexual roles to express and experience personal power through their sexual identities.

By asking the following questions I explore the dynamics of power and feminism through the lens of BDSM:

* What is power exchange in this context? What does it mean and how do women in particular do it and feel about it? Does engaging in SM power exchange affect other areas of their lives?

* Do women who engage in SM power exchange consider themselves feminists? If so, does identifying as a feminist contrast with sexual identities like submissive, slave, and other terms generally considered the antithesis to feminism?

So what then is power exchange and its significance to BDSM? Power exchange has been discussed in many texts (see Baldwin, 1993 and Miller and Devon, 1995 for some examples) and has come to be more academically accepted as the central focal point of BDSM relationships, rather than pain or other concepts. Power exchange within this context is often linked with various aspects of eroticism and sexuality and generally can be defined as the giving and/or receiving of "... sexual, sensual ... force or authority to, from, or with someone else" (Henkin and Holiday, 1996:29). Within the BDSM communities, this exchange is understood as the centering mechanism through which a host of erotic, sensual, sexual, and spiritual paths may cross.

Over the past ten years more social science studies have been published about BDSM, BDSM communities, and BDSM activities and behaviors concluding that these exchanges and identities are complex. For example, Taylor and Ussher (2001) conducted a study in order to further understand the complexity of individuals who practice SM. Although they did not set out to prove or disprove any hypotheses, their collection of data through interviews "... was used to generate a four-factor definition of SM: consensuality, an unequable balance of power, sexual arousal, and compatibility of definition" (2001: 293). This definition of SM acknowledges that the activities are consensual in nature and are being acted out as a means of sexual arousal, although not exclusively. This definition also acknowledges the important role of power exchange within BDSM activities and relationships, which may or may not include an element of pain.

At the same time, feminist scholars were also hotly debating BDSM sexuality from a sexual oppression standpoint. While "... some feminists regarded sadomasochistic sexual practices as inseparable from patriarchal hierarchies based on relations of dominance and subordination" others felt "... that sadomasochistic practices constituted a legitimate form of consensual sexual activity that women were entitled to enjoy without fear of discriminatory judgment by society or other feminists" (Chancer, 2000:2). This argument about BDSM sexual practices is an extension of the radical feminist versus third-wave feminist regarding sex work and pornography. While radical feminists believe that all of these are forms of patriarchal oppression and thus inherently negative towards women, third wave feminists generally agree that various sexual practices can be proactive, consensual, and positive experiences for women.

Cross and Matheson (2006) conducted studies to assess what was currently understood about sadomasochism with an eye toward testing popularly held academic views on the subject, including the radical feminist perspective that sadomasochism is fundamentally misogynistic. This study was not only important because of its focus, but also because it managed to obtain a rather high yield for participants, N = 93. In the end, Cross and Matheson concluded that "none of the prevailing academic perspectives on SM ... was supported by the data" (2006:147). These perspectives include the ideas that BDSM is maladaptive, psychopathological, used as an escape from one's self, and inherently objectifying towards women. They point out that "support for the null hypothesis is generally regarded as inconclusive ... [Therefore] these results should be viewed with caution" (2006:147-148), however this study leaves room for questioning these popularly held beliefs about sadomasochism and those that engage in it. Cross and Matheson also found that "... all four groups indicated generally pro-feminist attitudes ..." indicating that they held "... beliefs consistent with feminist tenets of equality for the sexes and breaking free of traditional gender roles" (2006:146). They concluded from this data that the radical feminist contention that BDSM sexuality reflects anti-feminist beliefs was unsupported (2006:146).

In a world where sexual norms are changing, but most people are still unwilling to openly discuss sex or sexual issues, the results of my research expand the currently growing information about BDSM and the people who engage in these particular marginalized and often negatively stereotyped sexual behaviors. This study expands knowledge about how women who engage in these behaviors feel about the behaviors, themselves, and the power dynamics in which they engage.

The interviews have been added to an expanding number of archived interviews from members of BDSM communities by adding women's voices to the collections of the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. The Leather Archives and Museum officially began in 1992 as a growing collection of books, interviews, and memorabilia from various leather organizations (DeBlase, n.d.). As of 2006, a new collection, "Women of Leather," was started in which participants from the leather communities were asked to donate interviews, life histories, memorabilia, and other ephemera to this specific collection (Leather Archives and Museum, 2008). In this way, this study not only helps social science research, but historicizes the accounts of BDSM community members for the communities' own future use.

The lens of BDSM sexual activities and relationships can be used to explore how women perceive, gain, relinquish, and control power because it allows for focused attention on identity and power that is both symbolic and actual. As Willis (1992) writes, "Sex in this culture has been so deeply politicized that it is impossible to make clear-cut distinctions between 'authentic' sexual impulses and those conditioned by the patriarchy" (1992:222). Maybe this work will not be able to make those clear cut distinctions either, but it can begin to explore women who do feel they have control over themselves, their presentations of themselves, and their sexualities to such an extent as to allow others to have some of that control for the woman's own pleasure and well-being. And in the end, if "feminism has been a movement devoted to helping women become selves and subjects rather than objects and men's others" (Abu-Lughod, 1991:139) then maybe studying women who practice such divergent sexualities as BDSM can help us to understand a space where women do have control and power, and are the subject and not the object. This work is a step in that direction, showing women's power through non-normative sexual practices in order to discuss places where women's power can be recognized and acknowledged.

METHODS

Feminist Ethnography

Feminist ethnography is often woman-driven and/or focused, and usually presents women and/or women-centered activities at the heart of the research (Visweswaran, 1994). This brand of ethnography provides a perspective that can be, and often is, lost when male ethnographers are conducting the research. "The promise of feminist ethnography is that we can elicit accounts and produce descriptions of these kinds of practice and thought that are part of female consciousness but left out of dominant interpretive frames, shaped around male concerns" (Devault, 1990:100). The hope is that women interviewing and observing women will not only allow for a better interpretation but will also provide new information that had previously been unavailable or missed. Of specific interest to this ethnography is the subject of women who engage in BDSM activities and engage in BDSM power exchange relationships and interactions.

The researcher who has managed to immerse herself within the group being studied is more likely to observe real actions and reactions without too much fear that her presence has created an artificial environment. This type of rapport can take months to establish, building trust and making the researcher an ordinary if not invisible presence that hopefully will allow for a more honest and realistic field experience. Although my actual field work and interviews were conducted from September 2010 through March 2011 in the Greater Los Angeles area, I spent many months before this time period re-building connections I had made previously within the community, as well as establishing new ones. During this time I found it critical to reestablish myself as an insider, or an observing participant (Bernard, 2006). This identity as an insider proved fruitful as it allowed me to interview women who would have not necessarily allowed such an interview had I been from outside the BDSM community.

More specific to this research, I participated in BDSM activities and observed women with BDSM identities within a variety of settings and events. These settings included spaces that were entirely public, such as...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP