Safe, Sane and Consensual. Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism.

This collection consists of five parts that first introduce and second theorize sadomasochism and subsequently discuss in the next three sections empirical research, therapeutic issues and questions of academia and activism. The twenty chapters are very different in scope and depth going from a historical overview by Kathy Sisson to the experiences of a dominatrix and some personal stories. Many books have been published on gay and lesbian and transgender issues, but rather few on sadomasochism up till now but the terrain is quickly expanding. Most of the older books, how useful they may be for the aficionados, miss academic rigor and rather offer personal or popular psychological perspectives (like M.Thompson 1991; B.Thompson 1994; Phillips 1998). This collection offers an array of interesting and serious essays that generally stay away from the defensive, vague and sometimes exalted work of the past. Because the work is new and the topic often seen as marginal and abject, there are many problematic points that create strong controversies. In this review, I will focus on these difficult but interesting issues.

Most authors subscribe to the collection’s title, the ethic of “safe, sane and consensual”, but some criticize and enlarge it and refer to “risk aware consensual kink” because many human activities from cooking, drinking, sporting, driving a car or gardening include hazards that may endanger sanity and safety, but people still engage in such endeavors because of the pleasures derived from them. For many kinky persons some risk is essential for pleasure, as Lisa Downing argues in her “Beyond Safety: Asphyxiation and the Limits of SM discourse”. She also uses the word “edge play”. The question of consent is not discussed but is as problematic as those of sane and safe. We forbid young people to have sex because they cannot consent, she argues, but we force them to be heterosexual without even wondering whether they would consent. And how often young people willingly engage in their first sex after many hesitations, but regret their consent afterwards? Moser and Kleinplatz make in their article “Themes of SM Expression” a clear-cut distinction between consensual SM and forced rape, and even say: “SM is consensual by definition” (their italics, p. 38). But sometimes such boundaries get blurred – and that is as true for coital sex as for SM. Sometimes the most rewarding sex consists of acts you didn’t dare to engage in or consented to because of ungrounded fears. In his remarkable study Mastery of Submission. Inventions of Masochism (1998) on the 19th-century origins of this perversion, John Noyes points out that a central background for the invention of SM in that period were liberal ideas of free will and consent that directly contradicted SM-desires for slavery and submission. A century later, the safety-valve for sadomasochists to fit into the liberal project was to underline their consent preceding SM-sessions, instead of challenging the liberal project and its belief in free will and market – but not in slave markets for SM purposes. The basic ethic of safe, sane and consensual is highly problematic, and although some authors discuss its value, most subscribe to it. This ethic creates a distinction, as Downing clarifies, between good and bad SM-people. While we all know that setting boundaries calls for transgressions in untrodden fields that may be more exciting than staying home.

In their quoted article, Moser and Kleinplatz try to create a “definitive taxonomy of SM activities”, but their effort must be in vain. I recently published an ABC van perversies (Amsterdam, Meulenhoff 2009) including dozens of variations and afterwards many readers complained their preference was not covered. That made me conclude that everyone has his or her own sexual hang-ups – making such a classification impossible, also seen the many crossovers and combinations in kinky sex. My argument when students complain about sexual taxonomies of gay, straight and bi that “we are all human” and we should not pigeonhole people for their sexual desires, goes that it would be better to multiply labels rather than to return to a “human” that will obscure once more variant desires under a straight coat. When we ask people about their profession, they will never say they do blue- or white collar work, but tell the details that they will rarely disclose when it is about sexual preferences. In my opinion, it is much more practical to say I am a satin and Adidas fetishist of masochist inclinations rather than confessing to be gay. Categories of homo and hetero, and queer even more so, are unnecessarily vague, and it should be in particular worthwhile to break down heterosexuality in its constituent parts, perhaps an elegant way to get rid of straight norms. This would not oblige people to keep to their identity. They now stay inflexible because they have little physical and psychic room for erotic games, but if such spaces were available, most people would for sure loosen up sexual fixations.

Not only ethical and taxonomical issues make the essays very diverse. Apart from more historical and sociological essays, the majority are based in psychology. The main aim of several articles (and Kleinplatz and Moser do so explicitly in another contribution) is to counter the idea that SM is pathological, and to affirm that it is sane and may even have therapeutic or healing qualities. This is a very real and important struggle as both the American psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases disqualify SM (and many other sexual variations) as pathological. States and courts, for example in the infamous Spanner-case and also in child custody controversies, have based their discriminatory practices regarding SM on such puritanical ideas that only regard private homo- and heterosexual vanilla sex between adults as acceptable. In a time of sexual citizenship, rights and freedom of expression, such perspectives are increasingly unacceptable. Matthew Weait discusses legal issues but goes, in my opinion, too far in romanticizing SM which he sees as “edge-play” and “an erotics of anarchy” and kinky people as resistance fighters. If so, there is little need to demand rights. In contrast, other authors in the volume attempt to detach discourses of SM from discourses surrounding other sexual variations. Weait argues that one unintended consequence of making distinctions between SM and other “perversions”, is that that the discourses can then serve to reinforce heteronormative systems.

The collection has an essay on the impact of gender (and SM-roles) on fantasy probably to counter the suggested sexism for which radical feminists have criticized SM. This blend of feminism even criticizes women for dominant roles because in this way they reproduce masculinity instead of fighting it. According to the article’s author, Megan Yost, it is not gender but role-play of dominant and submissive that characterizes SM fantasies – with men and women engaging in both roles. But how is it possible to ever separate the two because they are so intertwined? Most people who have dominance-submission fantasies will gender them – submissive equaling feminine. Also, a submissive man may be inverting gender roles in private, but not per se challenging them in public life. Trans men and women have often been censured because they do confirm, and not change the sex dichotomy. In a Dutch study, gay men who enjoyed to be anally penetrated, didn’t like to regard themselves as being feminine, they were no sissies, but nonetheless they called themselves sluts and referred to their anus as cunt at the supreme moment. Sexuality is highly gendered, and allowing men to be submissive in private can be a nice escape for these men, but does it change their gender performances in public? It may have a healing quality, as several authors argue, but does it change a sexist system? Gender issues in sexuality deserve more attention, but they shouldn’t only be used for defensive reasons. Kinky sex is sufficiently adult for serious academic attention, as gay and lesbian studies can be critical of the own group and realize that gays and lesbians are not angels, but show most cultural flaws straight people also express. The problem with homosexuality in the Netherlands is these days that gay men undergo and succumb to the pressure to behave “normal”, so reproducing straight norms. Kinky people certainly face the same hassle, and will keep their preference private, or low-key, rather confirming than challenging vanilla norms. In the activism section of the collection, some authors explain their fight for kinky rights, but this struggle should go beyond simple acceptance of sadomasochism, and probe concepts of gender, consent and risk, of love, sex and monogamy, heteronormativity, age boundaries, and engage with sexual citizenship rights. And not defend the anti-smoking policies as Grant Denkinson, self-declared fighter for sexual freedom, does, negating those kinky people who have tobacco fetishes.

An interesting article by Langdridge engages with the question of pain. There have been physiological explanations why pain gives pleasure, but the author is rather interested in social backgrounds. The “double experience of agency, the dissolution of inside/outside and the disintegration of consciousness (…) provide a number of answers to the apparent paradox of pain play.” Another part of his argument is that we have nearly no words to express pain. What feels most urgent, pain, suffers from a lack of a vocabulary with which we can express our feelings to others. Pain makes us speechless. But I wonder how this absence of a convincing language is not a result that we have no extensive idiom about the body outside the world of medicine. We have not learned to listen to or to speak about our body, but delivered our corporal experience and knowledge to doctors. Something similar is true for orgasm that is relayed either in terms of poetry or prose or in the technical figures of Masters and Johnson, but academic prose seems to be resistant to these bodily experiences. Perhaps we should suggest our students more often to describe their concrete sexual feelings, of pain, orgasm or self-pleasuring. In Langdridge’s article I would have loved to read some texts on the pains of masochism.

While there are some interesting findings in Eric Chaline’s paper on sexual scripting of gay SM, Robin Bauer has more remarkable points on BDSM practices of queer genders. This refers mainly to dykes (sometimes called dyke+) who play with gender, mainly masculine roles in games like those of boys and dads. A femme lesbian complains to feel left out of this community that not only has a strong focus on masculinity, but also takes its distance from the leather community that should be too yuppy. As in other articles, I wonder how much of their kinky (and their transgender) interests filter through in their daily occupations. Quoting Kate Bornstein, Bauer says that even their gender is not safe, sane and consensual in everyday life, let alone their SM expressions, once more raising the question how much resistance there is even in this radical and marginal group. The best we can say, looking at the examples of mainstreaming SM as in pop songs, novels, films, documentaries, fashion, advertizing, that kinky symbols have found a niche in the normal world. Most visible remain however the non-consensual forms of sexualized violence such as the brutalities of Abu Ghraib or half-nude catholic martyrs. Imagery on internet that is controlled by the perverts themselves is the hope for the future – as long as they don’t come under legislation that forbids “extreme violent” material.

There is so much more in this collection. It surprises me how little international cooperation exists on this issue. There is developing a rich body of work on fetishism and sadomasochism in France and Germany, but nothing filters through in this collection. Those who are translated, get quoted (Michel Foucault, Andreas Spengler). The marquis de Sade, the essential queer SM philosopher, remains difficult to identify with, even for Foucault who named him the “sergeant of sex”, and is very absent from this collection. Historical studies are not well known. Eric Chaline states that Kinsey was the first to depathologize variant sexualities, apparently not knowing that the man who invented the word homosexual, Karl Maria Kertbeny, already in 1869 chose the liberal, legal path to defend homosex, even before medicalization of perversions by people like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld started in the Fin de Siècle. In the otherwise interesting and well-organized paper on SM history by Kathy Sisson, the two main books on flagellation by Niklaus Largier (in German and English) and Patrick Vandermeersch (in French) don’t get mentioned, and neither Noyes’ history of submission or Harry Oosterhuis’ study of Krafft-Ebing that pays much tribute to masochist men and discusses the question where sexual selves come from. But it is nice in this compilation that historians and psychologists start to collaborate, as do empirical and postmodernist scholars.

The collection is rich in contents and leaves all chance for debate. The perversions (as I still like to call the sexual variations, sexier than paraphilia’s) always lead to stark and important controversies that, I hope, will lead to change present, restrictive ideologies of monogamous love and vanilla sex between adults. Pedophilia challenges the idea that children would be innocent and have no sexuality, sadomasochism ideas about consent, pain and humiliation, bestiality about the non-human, necrophilia about life and death, fetishism about objects and subjects of desire that are rarely complete persons. We need such studies in their unapologetic and concrete versions, that don’t hesitate to peep into what were formerly called the darkest of human desires where we may find new pleasures and insights. Sex is food for thought and perversions even more so.

The book is good reading for anyone interested in the topic, and because of the broader issues it touches upon, essential reading for students in the humanities and the social sciences. It is common sense to provide students with the products of “normal sciences”, but, in my view, students learn much more from diverging views and not so normal perspectives. This collection offers a variety of views that make it an excellent text for debates and for classes where critical thinking is taught. In a time when lawmakers introduce legislation that criminalizes “extreme violence”, including sadomasochism, legal and political specialists should read such books to grasp that BDSM is not an unthinkable vice, crime or sin, but a very normal pleasure not unlike gay or lesbian sex.

Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam

Niklaus Largier, Lob der Peitsche. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Erregung. München: Beck, 2001 (translated as In Praise of the Whip, New York: Zone Books, 2007).

John K. Noyes, The Mastery of Submission. Inventions of Masochism, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. 1998.

Harry Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psy­chiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Anita Phillips, A Defence of Masochism. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

Bill Thompson, Sadomasochism. Painful Perversion or Pleasurable Play? London: Cassell, 1994.

Mark Thompson (ed.), Leatherfolk. Radical Sex, People, Politics and Practice. Boston: Alyson, 1991.

Patrick Vandermeersch, La chair de la passion. Une histoire de foi: la flagellation. Paris: Cerf, 2002.