Tag Archives: BDSM

Social Conceptions of Marriage and Alternatives

There are two different basic conceptions of marriage operative in society.  The first, and socially encouraged, conception arose from the Christian, specifically Paulist, conception of marriage as a social control on the ‘evil’ of erotic passion. 

 

Erotic passion is not ‘natural’ but a specifically human sublimation of the generically animal expression of sexuality as a means to encourage the reproductive cycle.  The erotic is essentially individual and transgressive.  Ontologically it is the erotic horizon that is transgressed by the individual uncovering of what is erotic, which in itself is indeterminate – what is erotic is specific to the individual and in general terms can be anything at all.  In Lacan’s terms ‘There is no sexual relationship.” i.e. normalization of the erotic precisely undermines the erotic as erotic, returning it to the ‘natural’ expression of animal reproduction.  For the Paulist Christian this is the lesser evil, since the passion of individual eroticism is made to conform to a non-transgressive, moral ideal of a socially acceptable sexuality, and is thus destroyed as erotic passion and turned into a social duty within the confines of a socially inscribed formalism.  The civic conception of marriage simply re-inscribes the religious conception from a formalized union ‘in the sight of God’ to a formalized union ‘in the sight of the Big Other of the ideological framework, where God is removed from the place of the Big Other without removing that place as a structural necessity within the ideological framework.  This removal of a God posited as loving and forgiving in fact absolutizes the formal rules of marriage since there is nothing in the place of the Big Other that can respond to an appeal for forgiveness in transgressing the formalism.  It is within this conception of marriage that anything that does not follow the formal rules, such as gay marriage, cannot be considered a ‘real’ marriage in its institutional meaning, but only a civil union.  Although a civil union is legally the same as a marriage, for a Paulist it does not properly reduce dangerous erotic passion to the societal duty of passionless ‘natural’ sexuality.

 

The second conception of marriage is precisely the equation of marriage with a civil union, a social convenience that itself is meaningless and simply confers social acceptance while not affecting the transgression of eroticism and romantic passion.  In the case of someone whose initiation to society included a strong indoctrination of the first conception, viewing marriage in the second sense can even strengthen the erotic transgression of romantic passion, because the intentional refusal to engage with the expected formal rules of marriage is itself a further erotic transgression, enhancing the transgression of the erotic passion.  

 

While a move to the second notion looks immediately as both simple and attractive as an operative notion where marriage confers social advantages but the partners have no intrinsic interest in submitting their passion to a socially acceptable formalism, the reality is that maintaining that understanding is far more difficult than it appears.  We are all initiated into society with certain understandings and resulting inherent ways of interpreting given situations.  We have all experienced, at least at second hand, the initially baffling situation where lovers who have already had a long term passionate relationship marry as a social convenience, and it results in a falling apart of the relationship within a short time.  Many have also experienced on a more intimate level a sudden change in the other, where from being a passionate lover there he or she immediately conforms to the social expectation of the behavior of a husband or wife, confusing the person who hasn’t changed yet is expected to match the change by conforming to the social expectations of their role in the marriage. 

 

Although the partner who suddenly changes may have believed himself or herself that marriage is simply a social convenience, the act of inscribing the relationship into the symbolic order of society results in an immediate change in the operative interpretation of the meaning of the relationship.  Suddenly erotic passion becomes a more or less boring duty to one’s partner.  Erotic passion becomes something looked for or at least fantasized about as extrinsic to the marriage, something to be enacted with another.  Ironically, the fear of being found out that may be operative if this fantasy is indulged, or may prevent the fantasy from becoming more than that, is often not primarily related to the other partner discovering the extramarital activity, in fact they may be completely open about the situation with the other partner, who is often engaged in similar activities.  The fear is primarily that of being found out by society in its guise of the Big Other that remains operative despite being unoccupied by a posited being.  It is the fear of transgressing the inscription of the marriage into the symbolic order of society.

 

Often, precisely because the erotic is always transgressive in some way, the extramarital activities are perceived as ‘kinky’, which is nothing more than society’s judgment on the nature of fully erotic passion.  The ‘kinky’ transgressions may include physical activities that are against the established societal norms, such as violence that may range from mild spankings to extreme whippings and beatings.  Interestingly, within the ‘scene’ that provides both a relatively safe space in which to indulge this behavior, and a meeting place for those interested in the activities in the first place.   In some cases the activities are not extramarital but are carried out with the married partner, in order to reignite the passion of the marriage that the social inscription has obnubilated or even obliterated, but more often the activities are carried out with other partners, although often with the knowledge of the married partner who tends, at least initially, to see it as a way of satisfying desires they don’t share, and thereby maintaining the marriage.

 

In other cases the transgressions are specifically opposed to current society’s conception of an appropriate intimate relation.  This may take the form, for example, of an actual enactment of the largely mythical and now socially unacceptable ‘1950’s household’; it may take the form of the power differential initially found in a small minority of the ‘leather’ community (itself already a transgression of the societal stricture against damaging the liberal egalitarian ideal of marriage by adopting a dress and manner designed to evoke the impression of extreme masculine power); it may take the form of an extreme interpretation of the ‘courtly love’ relationship that initially required obedience due to the danger involved, but evolved into a dominant/submissive or even Master/slave ideal of extreme or absolute obedience for its own sake as fully transgressive of the liberal egalitarian ideals.   This latter type of transgression often goes beyond the bounds of the specifically erotic situation and eroticizes the entirety of the relationship.  While this remains a minority of the specifically erotic community, it has developed from a small and very secretive group to a group with a public international presence, one that very often wears external symbols of their relationship that are becoming more and more known within society at large, and even in a small way acceptable enough to be portrayed in mainstream media rather than only in small release productions that are unknown outside the community itself.  In many cases these different forms are mixed, where the ‘leather’ dress and manner is adopted by the dominant partner, while a dress and manner reminiscent of 1950’s pinups is adopted by the submissive partner.  This mixing is very prevalent within the heterosexual component of the community, especially those with a dominant male and submissive female.  While this may be seen as ‘reactionary’ in terms of being a repetition of at least a perception of a historically older type of relation between men and women, the transgressive situation in which it is enacted changes the meaning of the power and authority discrepancy into an erotic, socially transgressive situation, which is unrelated to a reactionary stance.

 

While in many cases even the more playful, less relationship oriented types of transgressive eroticism erodes the conformist marriage to the point of dissolution.  Other than the cases where both partners already married are simultaneously attracted to abrogating society’s expectations of the nature of their relationship in order to increase or reignite the erotic passion of the relationship, or conversely those already in a transgressive relationship get married for the sake of the social convenience but are careful not to let the expectations of others that they will now ‘act married’ affect the eroticism of their relationship, in most cases those that were married to another find their lack of real interest in the marriage inevitably leads to its dissolution.  Of course this makes it all the more imperative, but all the more difficult, to maintain the initial level of eroticism in the transgressive relationship.  By carefully avoiding any tendency to drift towards a normalized relationship or to accept others’ expectations (whether real or only posited) and change the relationship to be more in line with those expectation, the eroticism of the relationship can be maintained.


The Difficulty of “Community”

There is a lot of discussion, pro and con, regarding “community” among the set of people that view themselves as “kinky”, or “into BDSM”, whether that means the leather community or some more general community.  However there are a few fundamental difficulties that don’t affect more stable forms of community to the same degree.  If it seems like I’m singling out the leather community that’s simply because it is a nameable group or set of groups that people identify with as being-part-of, as belonging-with, something that is more difficult when you’re talking about “people into kink”, where the notion is so indefinite (how does one pick out a kinky person in a crowd?) that the idea of belonging-with is too intangible.  I also know a fair amount about the leather community, having been peripherally involved since my teenage years, without personally identifying as leather.  Partly this lack of identification comes from my not being particularly community-oriented, belonging-with has never been a focus of the way I am and therefore behaving in any specific manner other than what I felt like in order to belong was never particularly attractive.  At the same time I have consistently had friends who were very involved in the leather community, and I have no issues with their involvement, since it works for them.

One issue is the push-pull between inclusion/being included and exclusion/separating.  This has been an issue in the LGBT community, particularly in terms of ‘acceptance’ politics, for years.  I recently read a post by a leather dyke complaining about not wanting to be part of the “pansexual” play space because they prefer to be separated from het couples.  Although the post had a number of self contradictions (the main one being the notion that gay women had more “right” to being part of the leather community than het couples, when in actuality gay women were only accepted as part of the gay male leather community at the same time as heterosexuals, and even then somewhat begrudgingly).  There was also a snide comment about people “living based on fiction”.  While I’m not a fan of the fiction being referred to myself,  as far as leather goes, the look and the communities that followed were popularized by the film “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando, and as far as I remember it wasn’t exactly a documentary.  Prior to that there was really only one major biker club that had a look anywhere close to the way Brando dressed in the film, and ironically even that club changed their logo to resemble the one in the film after its release.  Gay leather and all the variations that followed came after the film and their dress code was based on it.  

Overall, my feeling about that post and similar ones I’ve read, is that you can’t really accuse people of jumping your train when it isn’t yours, and it barely left the station in any case.  The first women’s leather club was formed only 25 years ago, so even referring to the “history” of dyke leather (or any other form really as they’re all fairly new) is a pretty ersatz notion of history.

A more fundamental problem, though, is the lack of any praxis that is shared by the community as a whole.  Other communities, whether religious, scientific, political etc. generally have, or believe they have, a set of shared praxes that foster the sense of community, however BDSM doesn’t involve any particularly necessary praxes that are therefore shared with everyone and determine at least partially who they are. One would think that, within the leather community, the shared praxis of wearing leather in order to dress in a way that evokes masculine power, which was the original point of the dress code, would be the minimal requirement since it determines who the person is at least insofar as their appearance goes, but even that requirement is not acceptable to many people that nevertheless claim to be part of the leather community.  As a result the leather community, which at least appears to be more of a community than the kink scene as a whole, is in actuality a hodgepodge of clubs with very different praxes and ideas.  Someone who recently attended a couple of leather conferences complained to me that those who take it upon themselves to “represent” leather are themselves a very small group that, because they travel to most conferences, give an appearance of representing a community that in fact is mostly mythical, and only exists in the appearance itself as appearance.  Since I’m friends personally with certain people involved in that representation, there was a degree of trepidation in his saying it to me, but I think his perception is fundamentally correct.

This is true, though, in some cases more than others, of many communities that we still think of as actual communities.  For instance scientific method as the shared praxis of scientists is only valid if you stretch the meaning of scientific method to include a wide variety of techniques that contradict notions such as the repeatable experiment completely, simply because that method is not particularly useful except in particular sciences.  Yet even those scientists that fundamentally never use most of what is meant, strictly speaking, by scientific method, themselves believe that they use it in a modified form, and as such are members of the community.  There are equivalents in most religious and political communities . In other words, the representation of community in those that represent it doesn’t necessarily represent any specific reality behind the representation, but instead gives a specific form to how someone in the community might appear and behave and therefore be known as belonging-with that community, and in turn at community events that form is more or less followed by most attendees. This appears to confirm the representation but in fact is post facto based on prior knowledge of the representation, such that the presentation of community as community mimics the representation, not the other way around.  That many of the attendees don’t dress that way at other times doesn’t affect the situation, since it is only at such events that the community presents as a community.

This isn’t necessarily a negative judgment either on the community or those that represent it.  It may be the only means of creating a sense of shared, social being in a situation where we are only ‘together’ in a negative sense, i.e. because we have a shared dislike of the lifestyle promoted in the mainstream, but no specific shared likes.  In this sense the truth of the community is that it is a fiction, but truth often takes the form of fiction, the reality only appearing after the fiction has created its preconditions.

It can become problematic mainly if the fiction over-determines reality rather than simply determining a particular appropriate aspect, in the sense of normalizing practices and relationships that we specifically left the mainstream in order to not have normalized for us by others.  The representation has to be seen as only one possibility that may even be purely fictional, but represents a myriad of realities that specifically do not want a normalizing representation.


Subject-Object vs Topological Sexuality

In the subject-object mode of sexuality (or subject-subject, it means the same since the “other” is treated as objectively present, whether they’re referred to as another subject or not), there’s a masculine and feminine way of experiencing sex, which are very different from each other.  The masculine means of “objectifying” the other and subjectivizing themselves – experiencing sex from the perspective of the “I”, not the Self, is really masturbation with someone else there as a prop.  The feminine means is to experience it as a narrative.  Perhaps it sounds harsh to say that the common feminine experience of sex relationally is primarily as something to be discussed afterwards, but even though they may enjoy the sex at the time as well, that enjoyment itself contains an element of narrative distance, as if they are already observing the act and turning it into a story.  Some men of course experience things in the feminine manner and vice versa.  You’ll notice that ‘feminine’ types who experience sex in that way are the ones who take up the most space (almost all of it) online whether on BDSM or on vanilla relationship sites.
Beginning with a fantasy explicitly though can result in a different reality.  The a priori fantasy removes the “I-subject” as the focus of the experience, hence there is often tendency to talk in third person because somehow saying “I” feels odd, while saying “me” doesn’t, but where “me” doesn’t grammatically fit using third person is the only available option.  But this provides the possibility for each to experience sex topologically, not relationally, from the places they occupy in the fantasy, and the resulting real situation, the resulting shared Self, arises out of being in those places.  The is also a more intense experience, because it’s not an experience of doing something with or to an “other” that is irreconcilably distant, but an experience of a shared being-together enacting the very means by which that sharing arises.
If the RPG player is more themselves in their fantasy character than in the person they play in “real life”, the BDSM play scene takes that one step further, in that roles are still being played, but they’re being played in a more realistic physical manner.  However the people playing are still not willing to accept that that persona IS closer to their real Self and actually enact the role as much as possible in their “real life”.  Hence the insistence with many people that “they’re always dominant except when playing” or the need for many tops to appear super-sensitive to the bottom when not actually playing.  The discomfort of people into BDSM from a play perspective with those who enact the role to any degree in real life, which in my experience is much more intense than the discomfort for vanilla people, comes out of this combination of a desire to enact it more fully with a lack of confidence to actually do so.