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Margot Weiss provides an in depth ethnographic study of the BDSM community as it exists in the San Francisco Bay area during the early 2000s. Using a plethora of qualitative data gathered among willing BDSM practitioners, Weiss succeeds in her exploration of BDSM within the realms of capitalism, feminism, racism, sexism, the political sphere and even exploration of the self. The author takes her data and creates what she calls “circuits,” where aspects of BDSM, the individuals involved and more global social constructs are brought together in a unique form. (These circuits can vary depending on what is being examined). Should the BDSM communities that exist outside the San Francisco Bay area show similar elements to those observed by Weiss (as I suspect they do), then this book serves as a crash course for those in the academic or general communities who wish to have a better understanding of BDSM and all the intricacies therein.
The book begins with a prologue that is informative as it delineates relevant terminology. Specifically, Weiss breaks down the subtleties that exist within the language used both in the BDSM community and in the general public’s descriptions of BDSM practitioners. For example, “the acronyms BDSM and SM are used interchangeably to denote a diverse community…” (p. vii). This small piece of information is important as it informs the reader that any situation where “SM” may be encountered, does not necessarily refer to sadomasochistic practices alone. Weiss also partitions the acronym “BDSM” into its three basic components (B&D - bondage and discipline, D/s - Domination/submission, SM - sadomasochism) and provides examples of activities that may be involved within each of the components. The breakdown of “BDSM” illustrates the dichotomy of “SM” within the BDSM community, where the acronym SM has a double meaning (describing both the community as a whole but also pain/sensation play). Besides providing clarity and definitions for various acronyms used, the author introduces and defines new terms for the reader. For example, a “scene refers to a specific BDSM encounter” (p. viii) that is considered to take place in a bubble outside of reality. Also, a “top refers to the person on the giving end of any form of BDSM” (p. xi) whereas “bottom is the corresponding word for the person on the receiving end” (p. xi). These are but a few examples Weiss shares with the reader before taking him/her into the BDSM world of the San Francisco Bay area. For a reader who is not a BDSM practitioner, these notes are invaluable as they describe terms that come up regularly within this book, especially during the interviews.
Throughout the remainder of the book and beginning in the Introduction, Weiss uses the interviews she conducted and her personal experiences as a roadmap to help the reader navigate the BDSM landscape but also to build linkages within the circuits she discusses. In the Introduction, Weiss begins with a very broad description of some of the events she had attended and notes just how “NORMAL” (p. 2) everyone in attendance seemed as opposed to what she expected. This observation seems to be the tone adopted throughout the rest of the book, that of BDSM practitioners being as normal as anyone else, but just preferring experiences/activities that might be considered a little different by some people. Although Weiss embraces a tone of understanding and acceptance of BDSM practitioners, at the same time she maintains an air of neutrality within her description of events. Due to this “objective voice,” it feels as if the reader is supposed to make up his/her mind about what he/she is reading as opposed to being “told” how to interpret the information provided. Throughout the book, Weiss recounts many experiences and events she attended and her feelings about what she had witnessed/experienced during those episodes are expressed to the reader. These thoughts and feelings fulfil the express purpose of informing the reader that Weiss is not a BDSM practitioner and some of what she witnessed shocked her. But again, these experiences and reactions are not meant to persuade the reader to adopt a particular set of beliefs surrounding BDSM but rather to solidify the fact that these experiences are real and these practices do occur.
Weiss takes the practices she observed and the ones described to her during interviews, and relates them to broader social constructs not unique to BDSM but influenced nonetheless by BDSM activities (e.g., capitalism). Weiss does an excellent job creating a circuit relating BDSM activity back to capitalism. The idea here is that to be a proficient BDSM practitioner, one must possess enough “toys” or “tools” to make one’s desires become a reality. In reporting this tendency, Weiss is inadvertently reporting that commodification is rampant within the BDSM community. (Weiss provides an excellent description of the importance of toys and what is available/desired within the BDSM community.) Those who do not have the necessary disposable income required to “play” will literally be left out. This notion is reaffirmed by an interviewee who, when confronted with the sum of annual costs to participate, says: “When you add it up like that it really does take money to play. I don’t think that a lot of people who are wondering where they’re going to buy their next milk and bread are going to do that…” (p. 107). Although the BDSM community describes itself as being open to any and all who wish to join, there is clearly a false sense of inclusion. Weiss reports that the average amount of money the BDSM practitioners in her study reported spending on “toys” was roughly $3000. Thus, BDSM becomes the bastion of the privileged. Desire is an insufficient antecedent for participation: the proper “toys” are required, the purchase of which necessitates large amounts of discretionary income.
Aside from tying BDSM activities and social constructs together to create circuits, Weiss demonstrates the importance of self-identity within the BDSM community. Many practitioners create an alter-ego of sorts that they profess represents their “true” self. Weiss also stresses that within the BDSM community, one’s identity is not meant to be concrete but fluid in that practitioners are free to select their status with the community based on their desires as opposed to their genital sex (i.e., women are free to be “tops” if they so desire). This fluidity is supposed to be exemplified in the label “pansexual” (i.e., the idea that members will “play” with a person who best meets their BDSM needs regardless of gender or sexuality). However, as Weiss points out, the utopian idea of pansexuality within the BDSM community is not necessarily implemented in practice. Finally, related to ethnicity, Weiss reports that the majority of practitioners within the BDSM community are predominantly white. While the author attempted to recruit a balanced sample related to ethnicity and gender, she was unable to do so. This idea of mostly white practitioners engaging in potentially “racialized play” (e.g., a slave auction, a gang of white men dominating a black woman, a Nazi influenced theme, etc.) is highly contentious. Although Weiss clearly delineates the argument that this type of “play” trivialises the experiences of those who lived through such atrocities, she furnishes counterarguments that suggest exploring these events as satire robs them of their power to invoke fear.
Overall, this book is well written and provides substantial insight into the world of BDSM practitioners. However, two glaring omissions warrant mention. The first, and most important, surrounds the idea that SM activity is strictly sexual in nature, with the term “SM sex” used throughout the book. There is no doubt that BDSM activity is erotic in nature; however, not all BDSM practitioners engage in such activities for sexual contact or release. There are BDSM practitioners who merely enjoy being in dominant or submissive encounters and this group should not be ignored. A similar omission, that could be a result of the limited sample obtained by Weiss, relates to the absence of a discussion of asexual BDSM participants. Weiss does an excellent job discussing issues within the BDSM community related to ethnicity, gender/sex, socioeconomic status, feminism, capitalism and identity; yet, makes no mention of how individuals who may not subscribe to traditional or even alternative adaptations of gender/sex are represented within the BDSM community.
In conclusion, “Techniques of Pleasure” is an impressive book that does much to humanize BDSM to those who wish to get involved in the community or simply wish to be better educated about the topic. The idea of circuits (i.e., how various aspects of BDSM practices interact with one another to produce a cascading effect eventually ending in a loop or circuit) is provocative and helps the casual reader see and understand the intricacies of the BDSM community. Circuits help show how capitalism and neo-liberalism play as much a role in BDSM as accoutrement such as floggers and restraints. The linkages created between the scene and reality and how satire is an important aspect of a scene is reinforced using comments from participants who reiterate the focus of the scene and what it is trying to convey to the viewer. Finally, the idea that within the BDSM community gender is conceptualised as fluid (although this may not occur in practice) is intriguing. Weiss exposes a world that is typically viewed as dank and dark by the casual outsider; through her insightful analysis, she brings this subculture into the light and shows us the “softer side of kink.”
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