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Margot Weiss talks BDSM and sexuality
BOOKS
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2013-10-30

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Margot Weiss' book, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality ( Duke University Press, 2011 ) has become a fixture in several ongoing conversations about the BDSM community. It received the 2012 Ruth Benedict Book Prize and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards.

The sexual practices reflected in BDSM have long been the site of deeply contentious rifts in the LGBTQ community. As Weiss, Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University, put it in an interview with Windy City Times, "the need to defend BDSM practice and play from the feminist attack limited the pro-sex or pro-BDSM analysis. The stuckness of this debate—pro- vs anti-BDSM—is a legacy of the late 1970s and early 1980s sex wars. The book reflects my own process of unpacking and dislodging the terms of that debate, and trying to say something else about the politics of BDSM and sexuality in general."

That "something else" is a rich and dynamic history and analysis of BDSM as part of larger economic shifts, especially exemplified by San Francisco, the city where this book is based. Once home to an idealistic—and idealized—form of bohemian gay culture but now more firmly rooted in several manifestations of a burgeoning neoliberal economy, few can afford to escape there.

For Weiss, BDSM, which also requires a high degree of consumption in terms of its paraphernalia and access to the economic means to buy them, is not simply a set of desires but "produced in and through the relationship between capitalism ( specifically consumerism ) and community." Windy City Times spoke to her about that and more.

Windy City Times: In your book, you write that the BDSM community resists claiming a sexual identity. Could you elaborate on that?

Margot Weiss: What I finally settled on in my book is the term "identity in practice," by which I mean that BDSM folks certainly claim an identity, but it is an identity organized by or as practice. In queer and feminist theory, "identity" typically refers to a set of binary relationships defined in large part by genitalia—male/female, gay/straight.

BDSM identities—such as top, bottom, switch, femme domme, pony, etc.—are not fixed and stable identities in the same way; they are not primarily based on body type or type of body you are into. Which is not to say that BDSM labels are not critical ways that folks organize their desires, and their sense of themselves. But they are based on practices, more than on binary identity.

WCT: The book also counters a dominant understanding of the BDSM community as subversive and even politically radical. It's often assumed that because of the nature of its unconventional practices, it must also be, for instance, anti-capitalist, anti-racist and so on.

You trouble that conception. Was this a surprise to you, going in?

Margot Weiss: So my first surprise when I got to San Francisco was the size of the "pansexual" BDSM scene there, a scene that is open to everyone, but in practice tends to include mostly straight and bisexual folks. This scene was also intimately tied to commodities—to sex toys and other stuff—that was surprising to me when I first started going to events and meeting folks. The first real BDSM event I attended, as I write about in the beginning of the book, was a combination play party, "slave auction," and bazaar, so the ways BDSM is also a sexual marketplace was one of my first impressions.

No one I had read up until that point had talked about the role of toys in the scene, or the ways classes and workshops on BDSM techniques have transformed the scene, or the other aspects of the BDSM scene that are not, at least on the surface, either oppositional to capitalism or about challenging norms.

WCT: You mentioned the "sexual marketplace," and your book contextualizes BDSM within neoliberalism and in particular with the shifts in San Francisco. Could you discuss your definition of neoliberalism and its relationship to BDSM and to San Francisco in particular? Most people in the LGBTQ community have historically thought of the city as a liberatory space where queers can finally go to be themselves.

Margot Weiss: The core of neoliberalism is a logic of the market, and the privatization that goes along with this. In terms of BDSM, and sexuality more generally, we need to think about neoliberalism as a cultural formation ( rather than a strictly economic policy ) that makes some ideas, choices, values, relationships or situations seem good, reasonable, the way things are, etc.

In terms of San Francisco, or really the Bay Area, the economic changes that I think about in terms of late capitalism play a large role in this: the tech explosion in Silicon Valley, the Internet, the niche marketization of sexuality and sexual practices, the marketing of San Francisco as a tourist city ( as a queer tourist city, to reference your question ), the gentrification of San Francisco and the suburbanization of the east and south bay ( aka white flight ), the allocation of resources away from communities of color in the city and toward those newly developed cities and towns. … This is the economic history of San Francisco's current incarnation.

The BDSM scene that exists today exists because of these changes. Some of those intersections are obvious: there is a straight line between technology ( the introduction of personal modems, graphical user interfaces, and more robust Internet connectivity ) and the forms of socializing and networking common in the scene today ( the munch, for example ). Some are less so: the allure of queer San Francisco as a marketed image obscures or effaces the real ( economic and structural ) violence against poor, young, queer and trans, and folks of color that makes that image possible.

WCT: In a key opening part of the book, you write specifically about a scenario involving race play, a re-enacted slave auction—and it's something you return to ( along with a larger analysis of the role of race in BDSM ) to a few times. There are those who argue that this has nothing to do with racism—your own summation and analysis is more complicated, than simply arguing for or against. Could you describe your initial contact with that and whether it was more troubling than gender play?

Margot Weiss: Yes, it was more troubling, at least for me, in part because the way I understood BDSM play was that it transgressed normative gender roles...part of the question for me was not so much that there were more straight men in the scene than I'd expected, or bisexual women married to men, or whatever ( not so much about sexual identity/orientation ).

But it was about how to read—politically—a scene where a man is the top, with a woman as bottom—in the context of a community in which most straight men are tops. It was a challenge for me to analyze the politics of scenes that reflect, rather than reverse, normative arrangements of power. And I couldn't really leave it at an analysis that presupposes that reversed or queer scenes are transgressive—this reading was not sustainable in scenes that repeat gendered relations.

So, those scenes at the slave auction really bothered me. They didn't, on the face of it, seem to allow for a transgression-through-reversal reading. And, in the context of a "slave auction," I really didn't know what to make of those scenes. I was, frankly, upset by what I was seeing, and it took me a very long time to find ways to think through those scenes. I tried, at first, to analyze them as ( somehow ) resistant to contemporary racialization: They exaggerated it, or parodied it, or replayed traumatic history ( real slave auctions ) in a scene that neutralized racial history.

But I was unsatisfied with this kind of analysis. In some ways, those first scenes became an event I was accountable to: my analysis or argument had to account for those scenes. I needed to move past my own white liberal responses to the racialization of those scenes, and also the taken-for-granted ( at least in queer studies ) transgressive analytics, and get somewhere else in order to do justice to what I'd seen. Those opening scenes were, in a way, my own stumbling block in the book.

WCT: You do write about people like J. and Paul, who try to bring their consciousness about the problematics of power play into their scenarios. Is that what the book might advocate for? Is that likely to happen soon? In other words, is there a way to rethink BDSM/transform it so that it might live up to its radical potential? Or is it that we need to keep BDSM in a space of contestation, examining and questioning what its practices might represent? Is that the ultimate radical potential of BDSM?

Margot Weiss: I think the book advocates a more complicated and dynamic and, indeed, economic understanding of sexual politics, in BDSM and otherwise. There are definitely people in the book, along with many others, who are challenging the white privilege and the casual racism and sexism and classism that are part of the BDSM scene, and I hope the book can support those efforts. But it's not really up to me to instruct folks in how to do more radical BDSM.

I think that my pretty limited role as an academic is to try and find new ways to think about the politics and analysis of our sexual relationships, to open up spaces to rethink sex, and to uncover what might already be experienced as unjust—and to offer tools that might be helpful in contesting these dynamics. I think academics and cultural critics, maybe especially in queer studies, can sometimes fall back on ways of thinking about transgression or sexual politics that don't do that, and I hope that the book might play a small role in shifting the conversation.

But in the end, the potential of BDSM sexuality to serve as politics—that I am actually not so certain about. In so far as sexuality is a social relation, and opens ( and closes ) intimacies with others, BDSM has the potential to create ( and destroy ) the kinds of relationships we'd like more of. But in terms of large scale or structural social change … maybe I'll leave this with Patrick Califia's words: "I do not believe that we can fuck our way to freedom."


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