Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
(Duke University Press, 2011)
One of the most celebrated houses of ill repute in London during the 1820s – 1830s was the flagellation parlor owned and operated by Mrs. Theresa Berkley at 28 Charlotte Street. According to Mary Wilson, a fellow brothel owner and author of a memoir, Venus School Mistress, Mrs. Berkley “possessed the first grand requisite of a courtesan, viz., lewdness.”
Iwan (Ivan) Bloch, the “dean” of scholarly students of perversion and author of Sexual Life in England, Past and Present, a singular history of British mores and manners, found that Mrs. Berkley “could be jovial and amusing; and used to find out every inclination, every whim, every mood, every wish of her clients, and satisfy them, as soon as ever she was suitably paid.” Further, he stresses that “[h]er arsenal of instruments were vastly more complete than that of any other governess.”
Ms. Wilson details the tools at Mrs. Berkley’s establishment like a modern-day anthropologist:
Her supply of birch was extensive, and kept in water so that it was always green and pliant: she had a shaft with a dozen whip thongs on each of them; a dozen different sizes of cat-o’-nine tails, some with needle points worked into them; various kinds of thin bending canes; leather straps like coach traces; battledores made of thick sole-leather, with inch nails run through to docket, and currycomb tough hides rendered callous by years flagellation. Holly brushes, furze brushes; a prickly evergreen, called butchers brush; and during summer, glass and China vases filled with a constant supply of green nettles, with which she often restored the dead to life.
The full array of indulgences afforded a visitor were considerable, as Ms. Wilson notes: “Thus, at her shop, whoever went with plenty of money, could be birched, whipped, fustigated, scourged, needle-pricked, half-hung, holly-brushed, furze-brushed, butcher-brushed, stinging nettled, curry-combed, phlebotomized, and tortured till he had a belly full.”
Two centuries later, the perversions of S-and-M play have not lost their appeal. At a popular 21st century San Francisco sex toy and costume boutique, Mr. S, devotees can find nearly anything that turns them on. Toys range from dildos, cockrings, latex or leather outfits, boots, gags, hoods, manacles, spreader bars, plugs, and body bags to room-size cages. They can be selected—or made to order—to fulfill one’s every fantasy.
Margot Weiss, author of the ethnographic study, Techniques of Pleasure, visits Mr. S and many other venues of S-and-M play, unknowingly recalling the quest for pleasure offered at Mrs. Berkley’s salon. While lacking Wilson’s literary flair and Bloch’s intellectual range, her book is a useful scholarly monograph on how once perversions of the select have become indulgences of the many.
Once upon a time Margaret Mead’s classic study of difference, Coming of Age in Samoa, was required reading for educated people. It reminded them/us that their/our reality was not the whole world and that other people were living very different lives having equal significance. Weiss’s study is such a reflection, reminding readers that a parallel universe of “pansexual” activists is playing out its wildest (and weirdest) sexual fantasies against a background of the Christian culture wars.
Like Mead, Weiss is a female academic. And like Mead, she is fascinated by difference, which in her case is sexual and role-playing S-and-M. Unlike Mead, Weiss doesn’t have to travel half way around the world to discover difference; for her, it’s around the corner.
Weiss adopts the subterfuge of the scholar to play out the role of the participant observer—and enjoys every minute. She knowingly follows the path first cut by Michel Foucault, but does so without either the sense of discovery or danger that took his life from AIDS in 1984.
Weiss undertakes her expedition into a safe, known difference a quarter-century after Foucault, an eon since sex was radical. What was once wild is now tame; what once invited pioneers is now home to tourists. Today’s terrain of sexual exploration is open to all, limited only by the demands of safe sex and the realities of post-H.I.V./AIDS eroticism. A knowing observer, Weiss understands that times change and a new reality requires a new analysis.
Weiss’s study consists of two intertwined narratives—an ethnographic documentation of the Bay Area S-and-M scene and a critique of advanced capitalism. If one can get past the poststructuralist jargon, her book’s great value is documenting the goings-on of the sizable S-and-M and bondage and discipline “community” that seems to be flourishing in the SF Bay area. Its weakness is extending this documentation into a convincing critique of postmodern society.
Techniques of Pleasure is at its best when Weiss describes what goes on at gatherings of consenting adults engaged in semi-public and non-commercial fetishistic S-and-M role-play. To her credit, she includes extensive quotes from practitioners she meets along the way. Ethnographers have the eyes and ears of an explorer.
Weiss’s central argument is that S-and-M practitioners constitute a “community” of like-desiring, consenting adults. She finds this community at retail outlets like Mr. S, at educational groups like QSM which offer classes on S-and-M practice, at semi-public clubs like the Castlebar and private role-playing parties where almost anything goes. She also reminds readers that this community has expanded to BDSM “munches,” informal get-togethers among devotees held in public venues (often in restaurants, thus “munch”) and where no one is wearing fetish outfits; they seem to function as auditions with neither scenery nor props.
Further, she argues that this community is identified less by the sexual rituals or fetishist play they engage in as by the toys and tools, gear and outfits, that they collect, display, and expertly use. She implies that today’s S-and-M practice has become just another form of conspicuous consumption, sharing much with those into Harley bikes or muscle cars.
If true, this is a profoundly disappointing development, signaling the further integration of sexual deviance, as an old-fashioned perversion and form of transgression, into a marketplace indulgence. It signals a new phase of repression.
This socio-historic drama is played out in many of the well-orchestrated play sessions that are the book’s anchor experiences. Weiss grounds her study in an examination of S-and-M role-playing rituals based on traumatic historical and/or personal experiences. In particular, she seeks to understand the dynamics of a slave auction in which a black woman plays the slave, the simulated rape of a woman who had been abused as a child, and the role-playing tyranny of a master in a Nazi getup.
A shared self-deception underscores the S-and-M scenes that Weiss studies. To participate, in addition to the ritualized outfits, toys, and other paraphernalia that are required, practitioners are also required to accept a social fiction: that one is engaging in an activity that is not actually happening. Thus, for all the role-playing, there is no real slave auction, no real infantile rape, and no real Holocaust. Other than theater, what is there?
Two unacknowledged assumptions frame Weiss’s analysis. First, she assumes that the consenting adults who participate in what she calls the S-and-M community do so without the fear of being arrested; for them, and her, their activities are not illegal. Why is this the case? Why, after 400 years of the sexual repression we call America, is a pansexual community flourishing in San Francisco, if not throughout the country?
Second, the voluntary participants populating the Bay Area S-and-M scene tend to be middle-class, middle-aged white women and men, gay and straight and other. They participate for a variety of reasons, but they all seem to do so without a sense of shame, a feeling that they are doing something wrong. Traditional forces of sexual repression, both legal and moral, are becoming a thing of the past. Why?
Weiss’s study assumes these two preconditions are, in fact, the case. And they are! America is in the midst of a fourth sexual revolution, this one pushing further the revolutions of the 1840s, 1920s, and 1960s. Weiss’s book needs to be read as a case study of this new sexual culture, an anthropologist’s exploration of a distinct sub-set—the San Francisco S-and-M scene—of this revolution. While she only passingly acknowledges them, various iterations of this scene are flourishing throughout the country. One can only wonder whether, in other venues and involving other once-perverse sexual practices, practitioners have not lost what the erotic, the perverse, the illicit once promised.