Contact and Additional Information to be addressed to:
Emily E. Prior, M.A., 13950 Hartland St., Van Nuys, CA 91405
Source of Support: This research was funded in part by a grant from the Thesis Support Program at California State University, Northridge.
Through interviews and field work, the complexity of BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominant/submissive, sadist/masochist) power exchange is articulated as a continuance of third wave feminism, wherein women explore sexuality on their own terms. This particular type of power exchange is analyzed within the context of contemporary definitions as they apply to thirteen women from Los Angeles and their sexual and emotional relationships. It is concluded that the BDSM power exchange relationships these women engage in are complex, and fulfill personal, emotional, and sexual needs.
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:
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.
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 restaurants, and social events that were advertised to adults living within Southern California (mostly Los Angeles County); semi-public, such as classes, discussion groups, and parties that were open to adults who had some connection to the larger Southern California BDSM communities; and private, which were by invitation only or required a membership with a specific organization in order to participate. Each of these events presented “…a perfect environment for observational research, since voyeurism is common and even encouraged” (Moser, 1998:20).
Although there have been less than a handful of good accounts of what it is like to experience BDSM activities, behaviors, sexual identities, and communities from a complete outsider’s perspective, there have been even fewer accounts of people who identify as a part of this subculture and are academic researchers who can provide a more in-depth analysis of what is going on because they already know the language, the customs, the protocols, the layout of the land. Thus I felt this research would be richer and more interesting if I was involved more directly, and not “merely watching.” This has been a bone of contention among researchers who have studied BDSM, wherein many make it quite clear that they were not doing, only observing. To me, this does not even qualify as participant observation, this is only observation. If I were studying a group of women who worked in a factory, it would be reasonable to assume that I would endeavor to engage in some of the activities they did in order to provide a more full account of their experiences. In this same vein, although to a much deeper extent, I chose during my field work to engage in some similar activities as the women I interviewed in order to better understand and analyze what they told me about power exchange and their sexual identities.
Self as Subject: Autoethnography
Because I chose to also engage in power exchange and related BDSM activities during my field work, and because I felt this would add to my understanding of power exchange, it seemed appropriate that I would place myself within the greater text as a subject as well. This ethnography in particular places the researcher within the group being studied, as both an outsider and an insider, or a “halfie” as Abu-Lughod (1991) would say.
More recently, two social scientists (Newmahr, 2008 and Williams, 2010) separately endeavored to explore the world of BDSM, using themselves as subjects in order to learn more about this subculture. Their explorations are from the perspectives of individuals who had never been a part of any BDSM community, nor had they any background or previous knowledge of what they were going to experience within the groups they studied. In my case, I am more of an insider than an outsider. One may even consider me a “halfie”; I am both an academic researcher and a member of the larger BDSM community. I find myself traversing a strange divide between those who research “other” communities and being a part of one of those communities. This puts me in a unique position of being able to speak the languages and understand the customs of both of these communities. From the perspective of the academic research community, I am biased because I am part of the group I am studying, although I would argue no more or less so than if I chose to study my ethnic or religious heritage. From the perspective of the BDSM community, I found some resistance and the need to overcome a history of using people from marginalized groups such as this in order to stigmatize, define negatively, and possibly cause more harm than good. This speaks to positionality, the practice wherein the researcher must delineate her position in relation to the group or subject being studied, with the implication that this position may influence aspects of the study (Abu-Lughod, 1991; Behar, 1997; Spry, 2001).
Data collection took place from September 2010 through March 2011, including field observations and interviews. I used a snowball sample, choosing the first several participants for interviews based on my existing knowledge of who they are, their standing within the local communities, and their ability to possibly assist in finding other participants. This is also referred to as chain sampling (Bernard, 2006) where one may choose to interview key informants based on their availability, participation within a particular sub-population, and their ability to “pave the way” towards other possible participants. One of the main reasons for this sampling method was based on the need to stay within the boundaries of Los Angeles County. Further travel was not possible during this research, although I hope to broaden the geographical area in future work. Time was also a constraint, and therefore I did not have the ability to wait for many more months to meet and then interview other or more women.
First contact with potential interviewees was made by phone, email, or in person. I conducted more than half of the interviews at the individual’s home, two interviews were conducted in a public park, and one interview was conducted in my home. I allowed each woman to assess her level of comfort with me, and I let this set the stage for where the interview was to be conducted.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with twelve women. This type of interview follows a guideline, or interview schedule, of prepared questions but also allows for a more open, free-flowing, organic interview environment (Dewalt and Dewalt, 2002). Semi-structured interviews are very useful when one has only one chance to interview participants without the luxury of follow-up interviews (Bernard, 2006).
All of the women were asked all of the questions on my Interview Guide (see Appendix B), although follow-up questions and other remarks were specific to each individual interview. During the interviews I did my best not to define any of the terms I or the women being interviewed used. Instead, I asked each woman to provide her own definitions of terms in order to gain a better understanding of what they meant to her as an individual and to gain more insight into the array of meanings these terms hold.
Interviews took from forty minutes to three hours to complete. In general, the less experienced and/or younger women took less time with the interview than some of the older and/or more experienced women. I felt this was possibly due to the more experienced women having possibly spent more time throughout their lives thinking about their identities and some of the issues presented in the interview, whereas those with less experience had not really yet come to the point of thinking about these topics. Also, interview sessions that lasted longer were not entirely due to the interview per se, but also a vetting process wherein several of the women interviewed me, asking about my status within the local BDSM community and feeling out my worthiness as a researcher.
All interviews were recorded with a tape recorder onto normal bias tapes, and then transcribed. This allowed for a more natural flow of conversation during the interview while also clearly demarcating the beginning and end of the more formal interview process. Notes were also taken during the interviews, although these were mainly used to help me come back to points that I wanted interviewees to expand upon without interrupting the immediate flow. Although all of the interviews were transcribed, portions of some are used as direct examples while others are used as part of the general information gathered.
This study focuses on the experiences of thirteen women: twelve interviewees and one researcher. As stated previously, the first three interviewees were chosen based on convenience and a previously established rapport. The other nine interviewees were chosen based on general geography and interview availability. Although numerous other women expressed interest in being interviewed during the course of this research, many of them were not actually available during the time period in which I conducted the interviews.
On the surface these women seem to fit many heteronormative standards. They are all white, or can pass as white. They would all be considered middle to upper-middle class based on level of education achieved or in progress. Seeing them in public one may glimpse indicators of expressive individuality, but nothing glaringly screams “freak,” “queer,” “lesbian,” “dyke,” or “sadomasochist,” at least not to most people. They range in age from 22 to over 60 with general appearances ranging from a petite model to a full-figured, mature woman. Although I have changed the names of the women interviewed to protect their identities, the way in which they presented their names and identities remain intact. That is to say, women who used titles like slave, sub, Mistress, or Ms. as a part of their name were given the option to have their identities labeled in this fashion within the text as well. In the same fashion, women who presented their names to me in all lower case letters were also given the option to have this part of their identity portrayed accurately within the text.
RESULTS AND ANALYSIS
Power and the exchange of power is a topic that often surfaces when discussing women’s issues and feminism. In fact, I believe that power is the hinge upon which feminism developed, as all forms of feminism attempt to assert the power of women, by showing how and where women have or do not have power, and therefore showing the need for a balance in power across social, political, and personal arenas. In this section I define power and power exchange within the context of BDSM relationships, discussing asymmetry of power and how power often includes some system of rewards and/or punishments. I analyze ideas of power as they relate to sexuality. My discussion of power and power exchange within this context asserts that women can feel powerful in roles or identities that on the surface seem to be without power, and the sense of powerfulness that is gained by embodying these roles also empowers these women in other areas of their lives. I argue that if the premise of feminism is for all women to have power, than this must also apply to women who consciously choose to give someone else control of that power for the woman’s own satisfaction and needs.
So then, what is power exchange within the BDSM context? According to the women I interviewed the answers to this question range from a very basic “Just two different people playing a role” or “It’s a give and take” to much more complex answers. Ms. Allison described power exchange from the dominant perspective:
"...essentially what I seek is that surrender, that commitment, that choice to hand the reins over to me, to give me the scepter and for it to be a joyous and willing choice makes it even better… for me the power exchange only has meat to it when it is not required from either party and is a conscious choice to make certain declarations to each other which change the dynamics of a typical relationship" (Interview with Ms. Allison, January 12, 2011).
subjanice and slave barbara described power exchange from the submissive or slave perspective:
"Seductive. (laughs) Very seductive. Power exchange is where you have an agreement that one person is going to lead and one person is going to follow. One person’s going to support the other person in wherever they want to lead totally. One person’s going to agree not to make the other person wrong no matter what they do. You can no longer have that discussion… I think that’s the ultimate power exchange, truly, that you can be with that person and never make them wrong… if you can accept them the way they are and the way they’re not and empower them always, that’s the power exchange that can create miracles… … I think that the true power exchange is to somehow give yourself to that person so that you’re all of a sudden having hot sex in a way that he didn’t really see it coming… and that’s what I do… that’s for me… that’s the ultimate power exchange to renew a person… return them to themselves" (Interview with subjanice, February 8, 2011).
"From a slave’s perspective, total, which is another reason why I am not in a Master/slave relationship, because for me there is one gate… one yes… Total power exchange is merging my needs, my wants, my desires to that of the person I am in service to" (Interview with slave barbara, January 25, 2011).
One can infer from these descriptions that dominants and submissives are seeking to fulfill similar needs, although from differing perspectives.
The women I interviewed discussed power exchange in terms of including the following elements: trust, negotiation, and consensuality.
“I mean it’s consensual and I want someone to do it… or even if it’s just playing around, you know, someone comes up to me, you know, someone I know… someone I like, someone I trust comes up to me and gives me good smack on the ass, you know, I’ll oooh! Do that again!” (Interview with Irene, February 8, 2011).
"It means that I commit to belonging to this person and we have signed a contract that details the parameters of our relationship and that I choose to respect this person and put their needs, well, not their needs, but their wants before my own wants and that I trust the judgment, sort of, above my own." (Interview with kat, February 8, 2011).
"Well I would like to define it… how I would like to ideally define it would be the bottom of a power exchange relationship but not necessarily being powerless, you know, essentially submissives kind of when, you know, when you get under it they’re the ones actually running the show, they have to be the ones consenting to these things… it’s not necessarily somebodys who's weak, it’s not necessarily somebody who can’t balance her own checkbook or can’t run her own life or it's just someone, you know, who has a four year old mind and needs to be told what to do because she can’t do it herself… it’s someone who chooses to engage in… in having that sort of dynamic… which is quite nice when it… when it’s a good match" (Interview with Georgia, February 5, 2011)
Some women also included elements of balance, giving up and/or taking, surrendering or submitting, and setting and obeying of rules. Two women made it clear that power is not what is being exchanged at all, but control or authority over one’s personal power is what is being given or exchanged. slave barbara said:
"One thing that I didn’t say about power exchange that I want to go back and readdress is that when I talk about this aspect and when I teach it I don’t use the word power because it comes back to this issue about whether the slave is a dishrag or not. Slaves that I know are extraordinarily powerful people and what is being exchanged is not power. I don’t give my power away. I can’t. It’s an energetic part of who I am… what I can consciously give away is authority… so what I talk about is authority exchange as opposed to power exchange. What I am consenting to is giving you authority over my power. You better have equal… equivalent amount of power to be able to deal with it because if you don’t I’m in control… so I don’t think we exchange power, we exchange authority... We’re not exchanging power; we’re exchanging authority in a conscious, consensual manner..." (Interview with slave barbara, January 25, 2011).
Whereas Claudia described it in this way:
"In a sexual… the sexual area of course it’s almost similar where generally the person on the bottom is handing a certain amount of control to the other person in terms of what’s going to happen, however because there’s such a… frequently such a level of negotiation it’s… it’s not so much that the one person has all the power but it’s they’ve been handed the power… which is I guess similar to the example of the birthday because it isn’t that the birthday person has real control over everybody else they’ve simply been handed the control of the… what will happen next and so I… it’s hard to define power exchange. I’m sure there are several official definitions of power exchange but to me it’s one person or persons has handed control to someone else in terms of what’s going to happen next and for a period of time the person in control is going to be either conducting events or conducting… not even just physical events but maybe even psychological or even what is discussed or what is said in the next period of time." (Interview with Claudia, January 28, 2011).
In my field experience I attempted to both engage in and observe power exchanges. In the field it was more difficult to discern between power and authority being exchanged, and maybe this is a matter of semantics. Still, it is clear from direct experience and observation that this is a conscious give and take, and whether power or authority over power are being exchanged does not seem to be as important as understanding that both parties have power.
Here are two very different examples of how this type of exchange can play out during a scene at a party. Below I quote from my field notes:
I attended a party Saturday night. This was a play party after a day-long event, so it was very well-attended and there were a lot of new faces. There were probably 60-80 people in attendance. The room was decorated for Valentine’s, with extra lights, and paper hearts and arrows hanging from the ceiling and light fixtures creating a strangely colorful yet suitable dungeon décor.
A man I met at a previous event came up to me and asked if I would top him. I agreed and told him to find a play space for us. Although this dungeon is rather large compared to others I’ve been in, with such a well-attended event play space was at a premium. He chose to secure space in one of the more private rooms, rather than in the larger main room. This smaller room would only allow maybe two couples to play at the same time without interfering with one another’s scenes. It’s one of my favorites, though, all purple with lots of reflective surfaces, a padded table along one wall and another padded surface, much like a table top, secured at an angle against the opposite wall. This would allow someone to stand and lean against it, feeling fully secure that they would not fall, especially if the bondage rings along the sides are used to help secure them. Although this room has the capacity for playing music that is different from the general party music playing everywhere, we chose to allow the music and sounds from outside the room to drift in.
After some negotiation, we began to play, me flogging then whipping his back, scratching him with my nails and with vampire gloves. Vampire gloves are leather gloves with small metal spikes coming out all over the palms and fingers. This was something he chose specifically and I enjoyed using them on his skin. I knew I really got him when he started giggling. When I hit him hard, he giggled, making me laugh too. He trusted me to give him an enjoyable and interesting experience without harming him. I trusted him to respond in a way that would let me know if everything was okay.
We played for close to an hour. I know I never really got near his limits, and that’s perfectly fine, especially for a first time. Afterward we hugged and I made sure he was okay. I also contacted him the next day to make sure he was still fine with our play from the night before. I was very happy and he has asked if we could play again in the future. (February 14, 2011)
Later in the evening I saw the end of a scene between two women. It was an intense, hard scene. They were playing in the main room on a padded leather X cross. Although the room was somewhat dim, the added Valentine’s décor and a strategically placed spotlight allow me to see quite clearly what was happening. There was no giggling or laughter, and the woman who was topping was really whipping the bottom hard. I was sitting very nearby and never heard the bottom give a safe word, so there was no reason why the top should have stopped. She did scream several times, and cried a lot, but she never told the top to stop and never yelled “Red!” (a standard safe word in this dungeon). Still, by the end of the scene, the woman that was bottoming was literally on the floor and sobbing. By that point, the top was holding her and rocking her in her arms. (February 14, 2011)
In my personal experience where I was playing with someone I had never previously played with, I was being careful not to go too far. We had only met once before and had spent maybe twenty minutes discussing our limits and what type of play we wanted to engage in. We had agreed that we liked a lighter, sillier style of play while at the same time my play partner made it clear that he enjoyed a lot of pain and that I could be very hard on him. I made the conscious decision that I was not going to get anywhere near his limits during this first time because I needed enough time to be reassured that what he explained as his limits and what he was willing to actually engage in were synchronous. This follows with the definitions I heard that stressed trust, negotiation, and consensuality.
Although the scene I observed was a stark contrast to the one I engaged in, these elements were still in place. The two women I observed playing with one another were engaged in an intense scene where one woman pushed the other to her breaking point. By the end of the scene, the woman who was taking the beating was lying in a fetal position on the floor with her hands over her head and crying. The woman who had been beating her grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around her, then lovingly held and stroked her as she cried. This scene still stressed trust, negotiation, and consensuality, even if it may not seem obvious to someone who does not engage in these activities.
The woman who was being beaten was under no obligation to allow it to go that far and could have stopped the scene at any time. Even if the woman topping her had been unwilling to stop for some reason, the bottom could have said, “Red!” and the scene would have been stopped by others in the room. This is standard protocol within this dungeon space. This is a good example of what slave barbara and subjanice discussed about being a slave and fully giving up control to another.
Both of these scenes are very different from one another in tone, but a power exchange is still apparent in both. In the scene where I was topping, I had been given control of the activities, how they would happen, how hard or light the play would be, and ultimately I was in charge of the safety and well-being of the person I played with. At the same time, I had to trust that he had been honest with me about his limits and play style and also that he would indicate when he wanted or needed the scene to stop. The same type of control was apparent in the scene I observed, although it is of course possible, and even likely, that other elements of control were in place although not necessarily easily observed in this context.
On a different date I observed a woman engaging in fire play for the first time. Earlier in the evening there had been a demonstration on this technique, which in this case involved using a wand tipped with cotton, dipped in alcohol, then set alight. This torch would then be lightly caressed over the top of the skin to create varying levels of warmth, without actually burning the skin.
I saw one scene where someone was trying out fire play. I admit that I’m curious, but not ready to try it out. Especially having long hair, fire has always been something that has been sensuous and sexy, but I don’t want it on me… at this time. This scene wasn’t done with a female on top, but that’s mostly because the two people doing the class were men. [This party was scheduled as a “Femme Domme” party, where all activities must be female-lead, but an exception was made for those wishing to continue trying the fire play from the class preceding the party.] One of the men helped a female bottom experience fire play. She leaned against a padded leather X cross near the front of the room. The room was large and there was a lot of activity as the class ended and people began to arrive for the party. I found it a little chaotic, but sat at a polite distance and observed what was happening. She was entirely nude, and he used a torch or wand with fire on the end and he lightly wiped it across her back and legs and buttocks. I could tell that she was nervous, partly because I don’t think she had been entirely naked in front of strangers before and partly because there was fire wafting over skin. She kept covering her breasts and genitals even though she was facing away from the room, but eventually she relaxed and gave herself over to the sensation of the heat across her skin. The man topping her, waving the fire over her, looked very skilled and communicated with her frequently to make sure she was okay. I saw him whisper in her ear and she would nod, angling her head in a shy (submissive?) way. She then turned around and he waved the fire over the front of her body. She cringed several times, but she smiled throughout and clearly enjoyed the experience. She no longer was trying to cover her nakedness and seemed to delight in what was going on. The lighting was a little dim, but not anywhere near as dark as the last time, and her skin looked perfectly fine after all the fire play. Afterward, they hugged and she dressed as he cleaned up the equipment. (January 29, 2011)
Fire play is seen as one of the edgier forms of BDSM play for good reason. This involves actual fire and the potential to seriously injure, if not kill, someone if proper training and precautions are not taken. I admit that it still scares me and I’m not yet ready to engage in it, but watching this scene was a wonderful step forward in my own development, as I hope it was for those actually engaged in the scene. The man topping was clearly skilled and is actually an expert in this type of play. I have met and talked with him on many occasions and I would trust him to give me a positive fire play experience…. some day. Again what was clear in this observation was a sense of negotiation, consensuality, and trust. And again this was a woman looking to satisfy her own curiosity about a form of extreme sensation play being encouraged to follow her own journey. Prior to her actually removing her clothes and having fire wafted over her skin, she engaged in conversation with the instructor and had an opportunity to wave her hand over the flame, like many of us have done to candles. She seemed shy but curious and it was nice watching how slowly and quietly she worked up to actually removing her clothes and allowing herself to be subjected to this sensation.
Was there a power exchange here? Just because there is negotiation, consent, and trust does not necessarily mean that a power exchange has occurred. I had to really think about this. Yes, they were in a scene, but this was more like learning a new technique than actually engaging with another in a power exchange. Still, subtle elements, like the tilt of her head, how he spoke to her, her body movements, and his attentiveness to her indicated the possibility that a power exchange was occurring even if it wasn’t an established relationship or necessarily a scene that warranted giving up control to another. I think towards the end of the fire play, she had allowed herself to give up some control and just feel the sensation. Through her body language I felt she allowed herself some sense of abandon, allowing herself to be naked in a large room full of people she didn’t know, allowing herself to experience a new sensation in such a public way. Maybe her power exchange wasn’t only with the man topping her, but also with the room and everyone in it. I certainly felt as if I had been given permission to be in on this intimate moment, and that has some powerful energy.
On another occasion I watched a very different scene unfold. This party was very loud and full, and still this particular scene managed to grab my attention as an interesting exchange of power.
I was sitting in the largest of the rooms and there were so many different scenes going on. I wasn’t sure how much I would remember later to record in my notes. The music was loud and the lighting bright hot in some places and dark and shadowy in others, making it difficult for my eyes to adjust. Nearby was a group of 4 or 5 women with one man. Three of the women sat on throw blankets on the edge of a low stage near the front of the room, and one or two other women (they were coming and going over time, so I’m not sure exactly) kneeled on the floor next to the women sitting on the edge of the stage. Usually during a party, no one uses the stage, but play space seemed to be at a premium, and chairs even more so. All of them were dressed very nicely in lingerie, corsets, long robes, and heels. The man was on all fours in front of the group, with a collar and leash on. He was also wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. Funny, I get used to seeing people naked or in fetish gear for parties. His casual street clothes seemed so out of place here. After watching them for awhile, I realized that the women were alternately petting and scratching the man like he was a dog, and tossing some black object across the floor that he would fetch. They were engaged in puppy play!
This was somewhat tricky in this space with so much going on. They all had to be careful not to accidently interrupt some other scene, or just get underfoot, but I didn’t notice anyone being bothered by what they were doing. It was quite adorable to watch. The women were giggling quietly and rough-housing with the “dog”, and he was scampering and acting like a very happy puppy. He would bark a little now and again, and then roll over as they scratched his chest and belly. Eventually the “fetch” scene devolved slowly and the group moved onto another location. The man was still wearing the collar and leash, being lead by his Mistresses. (January 9, 2011)
In this exchange, there was a much more clear power dynamic than with the fire play in my opinion. Although the fire play portrayed clear bottom and top roles the exchange of power seemed more subtle, maybe more sensual, than with the puppy play. Here was a group of dominant women clearly in control of what the man, the puppy, was doing. They directed him to fetch and roll over and rewarded him when he obeyed. This type of animal play is an interesting facet of dominance, submission, and power exchange, and one that a few of the women I interviewed shared.
“I’m kind of a house pet here and it’s a lot lighter, you know, when you have pets… it’s like just a kitty cat… it’s just something that you want to nurture and you want to cuddle and you want to hold it’s not… the cat upsets you you’re not gonna beat your cat to fix the problem, you’re gonna try to figure a way to correct the issue, but it’s a much more… it’s a much lighter version I think is kind of how you would put it… and there’s not the…there’s not the SM really of it… there’s not a pain element or things like that…” (Interview with Georgia, February 5, 2011).
"I’m a bunny… and I’m very much a bunny in a person body and I like to crawl around on the floor and chew on things and get petted and scratched and hop around and snuggle." (Interview with kat, February 8, 2011).
"...part of being a pony is that you’re cared for... you totally surrender... somebody has to care for you... there are people that I know, they’re always looking up... they aren’t looking down... you have to particularly trust someone to guide you along where you can actually walk... also there’s a lot of trust... it’s a big trust game..." (Interview with subjanice, February 8, 2011).
Even in what seems to be lighthearted playacting of animal roles, there still are elements of trust. Those of us who have animal pets recognize the joy that comes from their unconditional love and companionship, based on an understanding that they trust us to care for them. This does not seem to be very different when people are acting as pets. We can clearly see a power dynamic between ourselves and our animal companions, where we are in charge of pretty much every aspect of their lives. This can also happen between people who are acting as pets and their owners, trainers, or caretakers.
Power is often discussed in terms of asymmetry, wherein power can only exist if there are at least two unequal entities. Blau (1964) discusses that in order for power to exist one person or actor must be in a superior position to and be capable of exerting his will on the other. Similarly, McCall and Simmons (1966) write that a person must be “…in a position to drive a harder bargain for his definition of the situation and his plans of action” (1966:157) in order for any sense of power to occur. These theorists believe that power cannot exist without a differential in resources, whether they are material or personality-driven. In fact, Blau (1964) writes, “Interdependence and mutual influence of equal strength indicate lack of power” (1964:118). Some of this is evident in the scenes described above, where a clear asymmetry of power is being displayed.
Although it is possible for this differential to be positive, as Yamagashi, Gillmore, and Cook (1988) report it is still “…the relative value of the resources to be exchanged [that] is the… source of differential dependence and thus of power” (1988:838). They go on to state, “The one who controls the more scarce resource has more power” (1988:838). Thus, even in a positive exchange wherein one may be exchanging certain goods for other goods, or services for other services, the power relation can be seen through the relative worth of those goods or services. One must be inherently better or more valuable in some way in order for power to exist between the people acting out the exchange. This seems to be in direct conflict with what women reported to me about their BDSM power exchanges. slave barbara points out that someone wanting to be her Master needs to be her equivalent in order to be up to the task of being in a power exchange relationship with her. Others state that partners or potential partners are considered equals and share responsibility for the exchange and the relationship, even if the edifice of the relationship is couched in terms of a Master/slave relationship.
Mistress Daria stated:
"Power exchange is… the exchange of giving up, you know, having trust in the individual that you are exchanging power with… where they give up total control and in turn I give them my energy and my power as well because we feed off each other and that’s basically what power exchange is." (Interview with Mistress Daria, February 1, 2011).
This can be interpreted as an even exchange of control for power, wherein Mistress Daria is giving power to the person who is giving her control.
At the same time, some of the women identifying as bottoms, submissives, or slaves stated they feel that they actually gain more from the exchange than the people topping them. kat explained:
“… you are on food restriction, you have to eat this and this and this… and then there’s the checking up and feeling like you’re taking care of… or whether it’s, you know, physically I’m going to beat you and then I’m going to snuggle with you or whether it’s, hey! Here’s $50, go get a bikini wax sort of thing… I almost think that I get the better deal out of it because I get so taken care of.” (Interview with kat, February 8, 2011).
In this case, kat feels as if she is getting more from the power exchange because so much attention is being paid to her and her well-being. It is important to remember here that she wants her Master to do these things to and with her. If he were to ignore her or forget to check up on her, not beat her, or not tell her what to do, she would likely feel that there is something wrong with the relationship and may even begin to doubt his love and affection for her.
Holly also brought up this idea of asymmetry and how the bottom or submissive actually gets more, pointing out that although she feels there is an even exchange within her BDSM relationships and play, she really does not understand what the top or dominant gets out of it. When Holly says “maybe he’s getting a need met by doing things to me” her tone suggests she is not convinced that her partner is getting as much out of the exchange as she is.
It is important to note that even if asymmetry is a required condition of power and the exchange therein, it is not likely that one party will always have more power than the other at all times. It is more likely that power will shift from person to person, and this is “…ordinarily accompanied by (and often the basis of) shifts in events and activities that call forth different role-identities” (McCall and Simmons, 1966: 158). This speaks to an exchange of power or a give and take that is not usually one-sided or beneficial to only one party. This also speaks to the possibility that power can be exchanged differently and constantly depending on the identities, roles, and activities of those involved. subjanice explained it in this way:
“It’s really remarkable how that works. You see if you can go and give someone to be the best person they can be it requires you to be the best person you can be, so it bounces back and forth and all of sudden you can’t tell who’s on top and who’s on bottom because the energy just flows and flows. I think that that’s very natural. That’s the real seductiveness of it.” (Interview, February 8, 2011).
Several other women discussed this aspect as well, especially in regards to identities of being a sadomasochist or a switch, wherein those identities present a BDSM personality type that is interested in and willing to flow between identities of top and bottom, dominant and submissive, depending on the circumstances and the people with whom they are playing. Although this flow may not take place in the course of an individual scene, it could occur throughout the course of a relationship, where a woman would top and then bottom to a partner, and vice versa, over time. This may also occur during a person’s play, but not with the same partner, where a woman would top certain people and bottom to others. Therefore, she is switching back and forth between giving and receiving, but not necessarily within one relationship or play scene.
Another concept related to power is the inclusion of some system of rewards and punishments. Power may be exerted by rewarding good behavior or actions and punishing bad behavior or actions. Reward may take the form of not receiving punishment, just as punishment may take the form of a reward being withheld. Reward and punishment may also be used to coerce or influence someone into an exchange, thus exerting power over that person. “This suggests a distinction between coercive power, which rests on the deterrent effect of negative sanctions, and influence based on rewards as that characteristic of exchange transactions” (Blau, 1964:116). Foucault (1978) points out this type of coercive power is prevalent throughout society, on larger levels like the prison system, and on smaller levels within the household. He writes, “…in any case one schematizes power in a juridical form, and one defines its effects as obedience” (Foucault, 1978:85). It could then be concluded that obedience, or disobedience, is the result of the power exchange in which rewards and punishments are used to coerce a reaction or state of behavior. Coupled with the statements above, this type of exchange can be performed back and forth by people, and includes some asymmetry of equality between those engaged in the exchange.
Several women discussed a system of punishments and rewards as an element of their power exchanges. kat described her current form of punishment when she does something incorrect or that her Master does not like:
“… for me right now I have been caned frequently for punishment because it is a very quick and effective punishment and in the past I have written lines or had essays or restrictions or something…… I have disappointed my Master and this is a correction, but it is… it’s something that I’m glad to…” (Interview, February 8, 2011)
Mistress Daria said that although she identifies as lesbian, she will occasionally play with men. Even though she is not sexually intimate with them, she still offers them the reward of sexual self-release if they have done something well.
These examples of punishment and reward must be contextualized, however. Within the context of BDSM, what may be considered a punishment or reward can be very complex. Equating punishment with activities that are generally socially acceptable as corporal punishment and equating permission for orgasm with reward is not necessarily what happens in a BDSM exchange. When talking with kat it became clear that although currently caning is being used as a punishment, this activity is not always a punishment; sometimes caning is a pleasurable activity and can have sensual, sexual, and positive reinforcement attachments for her. Punishments and rewards can be difficult for outsiders to understand if they do not grasp the logics of the BDSM context. Within this subculture, punishments and rewards are not defined by particular activities. We may think of caning, spanking, bondage, whipping, blindfolding, sensory deprivation, food and/or bodily function control, and a myriad of other activities as obvious punishments. In the “real” world this may be the case, but within BDSM these supposedly punishment activities are inverted into sensual, erotic activities that many see as pleasurable and as rewards for good behavior. In fact, very often the worst form of punishment is having these activities and those like them withheld for a period of time, rather than administered.
I argue that BDSM power exchange is at its essence an erotic or sexual exchange, although not exclusively so. Foucault writes, “What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (1988:119). This is certainly true when discussing BDSM power exchange. Also, the sexual exchange here is not always overt or obvious. One may watch BDSM power exchange taking place and note that nothing overtly sexual occurs – the parties involved are not necessarily naked, do not necessarily involve any form of genital touch or contact, and do not necessarily engage in activities that most people would define as sexual. Still, it is clear that power and sexuality are inextricably linked during these exchanges.
Through these accounts we can begin to see how these women are interpreting their sexualities as positive products of power, at least within the context of the BDSM power exchange. Foucault states “’sexuality’ is far more of a positive product of power than power was ever a repression of sexuality” (1988:120). These accounts describe women who have found pleasure, playfulness, and beneficial consensual relationships by means of utilizing an exchange of power that is sexual in nature and yet does not seem to oppress or degrade them. In this context, I am defining degradation in a non-BDSM, non-consensual exchange. There is certainly room for and experience of degradation and humiliation as forms of consensual BDSM power exchange and interaction, but this is not what I am discussing here. This is a system of power in which those involved set up and maintain the structure as a construction to reach personal, sexual, and relationship goals. The women I interviewed and observed are just as likely to engage in painful activities as more romantic or playful activities. They are clear that it is not the activities themselves nor whether a man or woman is in charge that determines the power exchange so much as how partners negotiate and gain from the exchange that matters.
From a third wave feminist perspective, these women are consensually engaging in sexual power exchanges that provide them with a sense of freedom and control, even to an extent where they feel free to allow someone else to have that control for a period of time. Although this seems to be the antithesis to the tenets of many radical feminist beliefs that may view BDSM power exchange and its components as oppressive or even abusive, the women I interviewed and observed did not feel this way.
Although the women provided varying definitions of power exchange they each used terms like consent, trust, negotiation, commitment, giving up, seductive, sexual, and give and take. It seems that we can discuss power exchange and understand its core concepts but there is room for personal, intimate nuances specific to those engaging in these types of relationships and behaviors. This also resonates with the social science theories about power exchange discussed earlier, including Blau (1964), McCall and Simmons (1966), and Yamagashi, Gillmore, and Cook (1988), among others.
Some of the women I interviewed feel their power exchange relationships and BDSM life in general, are well integrated into their “vanilla” lives. They used terms like balanced and authentic to describe how there really is no difference for them, no clear demarcation between what they experience within BDSM and what they experience in other social or personal spheres, like home or work. Other women felt that these were very separate for them; what they experience at work or school is very different from their BDSM experiences. I found it interesting though that they still described their BDSM life as being the “authentic” one, and the other facets as being separate or disconnected. This makes room for an argument that for some women BDSM power exchange is not merely fulfilling base human needs for sexual contact or interaction, but is also being used to fulfill and explore the intellectual and emotional needs of those so engaged.
Cross and Matheson (2006) conclude that there is a general belief of pro-feminist attitudes among their subjects, leaving them to argue that the radical feminist contention that BDSM sexuality reflects anti-feminist beliefs is unsupported. All but two of the women I interviewed defined themselves as feminist. Claudia preferred the term humanist to describe herself in this way, wanting a term that had a more equal feel to her than feminism. When I asked the two women who did not want to apply the terms feminist or feminism to describe themselves or their belief systems, they described feminism from the radical perspective. They were adamant that they were not in sync with a philosophy that is often popularized as anti-male and anti-sex. When I offered a definition of feminism coming from the third wave perspective, they seemed all right with the general concept, but feminism as a label and term still seemed to hold a negative connotation for them. This is not surprising as there has been evidence, or at least propaganda, that has been working hard at making feminism a worse f-word than fuck in many circles (Bauer, 1990; Beck, 1998). Still, the majority of the women seem proud to think of themselves as people working towards equality, strength, and a brand of feminism that does not look down upon their sexual orientations and relationships.
The majority of the women I interviewed identified as bottom, submissive, captive, or slave. This was not intentional. Still it allows me to answer whether or not these women found an incongruity between these identities and a feminist identity. Overwhelmingly, the answer was no. They saw little to no incongruity, and in fact felt that their feminist identity supported identities of submissive and slave. For them these are sexually and emotionally fulfilling roles and identities that, in some cases, feed other aspects of their lives. It can be difficult to grasp that there are women who self-identify with roles that feminism has worked to eliminate, and yet identify as feminists. Within third wave feminism women are viewed as defining their own sexuality and identities, even if that includes an interest or profession in pornography or other sex work (Snyder, 2008). It is my contention that third wave feminism provides a space for women in BDSM communities to express their sexual identities fully, even when those identities seem counterintuitive to the ideals of feminism. Women, who do identify as submissive, sexually or otherwise, find a space where they can fully express themselves, as integrated, well-balanced, and powerful, women.
Some of the limitations include interview population size, array of sexual, race, and socio-economic identities in the sample. Current studies on BDSM show varying national populations of people who engage in BDSM activities and behaviors (see Reinisch, Beasley, and Kent, 1990 and Tomassilli, Golub, Bimbi, and Parsons, 2009 for examples) making it very difficult to really know what percentage of the population engage in BDSM, how they define these activities and behaviors, and what significance they may have to their lives and identities. It may be time for a national survey to help researchers have a better grasp of this population.
Interviewing a dozen of women in Los Angeles is not enough research from which to draw grand generalizations, but this study does provide rich insight into women’s experiences and the BDSM community, and may be used to guide future research on sexual identities. Also, those interviewed are not entirely representative of women within the BDSM subculture in Los Angeles. Individuals representing the full range of sexual, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds did not participate in this study. Although many women who presented themselves as tops or dominants were observed and subsequently asked for interviews, only one woman interviewed identified herself as a dominant. Other women who presented as such, and may have self-identified as dominant, were not interviewed due to problems arranging interviews. Also, all of the women presented themselves as a white, middle-class population. It would have been beneficial to include other races and classes.
However, it was not possible at the time this study was conducted.
The collection methods used were semi-structured interviews and observing participant, mostly from an anthropological perspective. While I believe that qualitative methods should continue to be used when researching these topics, collecting quantitative data and using other disciplines may be helpful in rounding out this research.
Over the six months that this research was conducted, I touched upon a very small amount of what can be garnered from these subpopulations in regards to power, as well as other topics. It is clear that research using similar and other methods to focus on a larger and differing populations could yield information that would not only be interesting but useful to illuminate the complex and fluid nature of sexuality and the ways that sexualities intersect with other aspects of life or cultural domains.
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Appendix A: Interviews and FieldnotesInterviews
Appendix B: Interview Guide
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