Not Just ‘Kinky’ Sex!: The Many Meanings Of BDSM, By Brandy Simula

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While BDSM is often understood primarily as a type of sexuality or sexual practice, several studies suggest that BDSM has many meanings that go beyond just sex.

Brandy Simula

Photo: Brandy Simula

Brandy Simula.

After we asked Brandy Simula what she was reading, we decided to invite her back for her own guest post.  She decided to write about bondage, domination, and sadomasochism (often referred to as BDSM).

Not Just ‘Kinky’ Sex!: The Many Meanings Of BDSM

From films such as 9 ½ weeks and Secretary to shows like CSI, the Surreal Life, and Desperate Housewives to music videos by artists including Madonna, Rihanna, and Christina Aguilera to ads for yogurt, deodorant, and cars, BDSM is becoming increasingly visible in pop culture. In the past decade, BDSM has also received increasing attention from sexuality researchers. For instance, in 2006, the first ever journal issue dedicated entirely to BDSM was published by the Journal of Homosexuality.

While BDSM is often understood primarily as a type of sexuality or sexual practice, several recent studies suggest that BDSM has many meanings that go beyond just sex.

BDSM As Therapy

A new study by Danielle Lindenmann found that pro-dommes (also known as dominatrixes) frame their work as a form of therapy. Barker, Gupta, and Iantaffi also found that BDSM provides a space in which some participants feel safe exploring issues that are traditionally brought up in counseling settings. These studies report that some participants use BDSM to work through a variety of issues including self-esteem, emotional and physical abuse, sexuality, and the stigma attached to BDSM. For some participants, BDSM even functions as a form of sex therapy, allowing participants to work through their desires and fears about sex and sexuality.

BDSM As Gender Exploration

Other studies have found that BDSM creates a space for people to explore their gender identities and expressions. In a recent study based on 50 interviews with self-identified dyke, trans, gay, and/ or queer identified BDSM participants, Robin Bauer found that BDSM creates “queer playgrounds” in which participants can explore gender. For some, what starts out as gender play in the context of BDSM often has a broader impact on their lives, as they incorporate gender expressions they created in BDSM into other aspects of their lives. Similarly, Ani Ritche and Meg Barker found that feminist-identified women who participate in BDSM often view BDSM as a space in which traditional gender norms can be resisted. In both of these studies, participants experience BDSM as a type of gender play, sometimes using BDSM to work through ideas of what feminist sex might be.

BDSM As Serious Leisure

Staci Newmahr’s new ethnography of a BDSM community in the Northeast suggests that BDSM is a form of serious leisure. Newmahr argues that BDSM is unlike most other forms of sexuality, in that it requires significant investments of time and resources and that it can be understood as analogous to serious hobbies such as extreme sports. She explains that BDSM is a form of leisure that has a significant learning curve. Participants in BDSM must learn a variety of physical, psychological, and emotional skills that require both time and practice. There are many payoffs of this learning process and many go beyond sexual pleasure. For the participants in Newmahr’s study, participation in BDSM has a variety of social-psychological rewards, including feelings of empowerment, personal growth, and healing.

Much More Than Sex

BDSM is, for many participants, much more than just kinky sex. It is a set of activities that influence and are influenced by many other non-sexual aspects of life. These studies confirm the growing recognition among scholars of sexuality that sexuality it deeply intertwined with other aspects of people’s lives.

For further reading, check out SM 101.

Brandy Simula is a doctoral candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University.  Her research examines the relationships between gender and power in sexual interactions, using feminist, queer, and symbolic interactionist theory perspectives.

 

Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman

received his PhD in sociology at Indiana University. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman's research interests lie in medical sociology, social psychology, sexualities, and race/gender/class. You can see his personal blog at http://egrollman.com.
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