Techniques of Pleasure – BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
Duke University Press
@: buy it online
Stop me if you heard this one, but growing up you should really learn to take a hint – especially when it slaps you in the face. Case in point: as a very avid reader who normally blazes through books in a matter of days, I should have guessed something was off when reading Techniques of Pleasure – BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality took me almost two years. It was one of those on-and-off affairs where you tell everybody how cool the book you are reading is… but you kinda never get around to digest more than a dozen pages a time at best, and you end up binging on other, more relatable, texts in the meantime. The work is now done, however. 336 pages and lots of pondering their content later, I believe it is finally time to introduce you to Margot Weiss’ tome, for it sure has a place on your bookshelves if you are even half serious about learning what BDSM is about. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about how tough of an item it can be, all right?
At the time of writing it, Mrs. Weiss was an assistant professor of Anthropology and American Studies at the Wesleyan University and, be assured, she won’t allow you to forget that even for a minute as you read her work. Techniques of Pleasure is, in a nutshell, her ethnographic exploration of the San Francisco BDSM scene of the early 2000s and her analysis of the experience as seen through a thick lens of academic and critical thinking. This is at the same time very good and very bad. The former because it allows the reader to perceive the world of kink with a refreshing perspective free from the usual limited narratives of «they’re all cool explorers» and «they are just lunatics»; the latter because it refers to a very limited and uncommon subset of kinksters, and the author seems to actively oppose any interpretation not fitting her highly theoretical view of unusual sexualities. So, although the book won a few (again: very self-referential) awards, I wouldn’t really recommend it as an accomplished research. Which doesn’t mean it lacks many great insights, though.
The title itself refers to the idea of BDSM as an extremely technical endeavor, quite removed from the spontaneity of vanilla sex and thus worth of investigating in search of the actual meanings of such complex behaviors – or ‘circuits’, as the author calls them. Her conclusion is that the current state of kink is but the commodification of a social critique that has long been declawed and sanitized, until it became just an affluent white boys club whose pastimes reflect – often unwittingly – the same old boring social rules, issues and traumas afflicting the “normal” society it proudly declares to be removed from. Weiss sounds especially irritated by her research subjects lack of interest in turning their quality time into political performances against, say, the gentrification of the San Francisco gay district or the acceptance of slavery in American history. An attitude I can kinda relate to, but which feels rather silly as you realize she is basing all of her ideas on the observation of an extremely selected bunch of people. Getting all incensed with the larger BDSM culture about ‘ubiquitous fundraising through slave auctions’ when they are (were?) a uniquely north-American peculiarity, for example, really exposes the issue – especially when she sort of prides herself for resisting her subjects’ reiterated explanation that the words ‘master’ and ‘slave’ just have no connection whatsoever with the cotton plantations of the past.
Having said this, I still believe that being open to outside critique would do wonders for the highly self-referential, reiterative status quo of the kinky scene. As I read Techniques of Pleasure, for example, I took notes whenever I stumbled onto a “new” perspective of the erotic culture I am so used to inhabit that maybe I am unwittingly getting too accepting of. I don’t always subscribe to them, yet here they are, in no particular order:
- The ‘safe’ in SSC may actually mean kink is safe from social reality;
- Kink is libertarian because it is aware of individual needs, but also neoliberal since it fences them into private spaces, reinforcing the idea of sexuality as the prize for being good alienated workers;
- Weiss confirms Newmahr’s theory that people get into kinky communities because they are fun and accessible even if they aren’t really interested in BDSM, but they suck the energy out of them by talking too much and playing too little if ever;
- Kinky communities reinforce neoliberalism because they require resources (financial and otherwise) to participate. Think of how the gentrification of San Francisco made it a gay theme park where non-affluent gays are excluded;
- Different types of sexual minorities have different concepts of public. Gays are public with everyone, whereas BDSM people are “public” only among themselves in closed and protected spaces;
- Kink culture is based on learning and following behavior and safety rules which are sensible but which take any social rebellion value to play. Play is more about showing off than about communicating with your partners;
- Conspirationism alert: “self-regulations acceptance is the indirect way for governments to control deviances”;
- The Society of Janus was the first to campaign for rules and safety, removing sensuality and the thrill of danger from BDSM play;
- Kinky communities are overwhelmingly white and middle-class because both BDSM and this class itself are defined by risk as something you choose instead of being a subject of;
- The legal need for dungeon monitors has made experienced players intolerant to the proliferation of rules;
- BDSM toys are fetishes, and according to Marx and Freud fetishes are substitutes for successful sexual or social relations. They are also proof of how kink is a consumerist fantasy;
- North American culture associates politics and sexuality with privacy. Bringing sexuality out into the public discourse makes it political, and if it is kinky it questions the mechanisms behind consumerism and social inequalities;
- Society imbibes the dominant role in BDSM with insecurity and with misunderstandings about the meaning of dominance;
- The kinky scene in the USA is overwhelmingly white but it doesn’t even realize it harbors a racist undercurrent. Black people don’t participate due to the repercussions on their public perception and self-image. The scene however decontextualizes history (slavery, Nazism, etc.) and turns it into satire.
And there you are. I just saved you from one year of hard, intense reading. Unless you are a real scholar, in which case you should really get the book and be ready for a pretty serious experience.