Friday, 16 November 2007

Framing SM in feminist terms

I've been working my butt off for my postgrad degree of late, and most of my written work looks like it's going be centred around BDSM. Excited though I am, when writing what I suppose constitutes some kind of narrative analysis through a feminist framework, I find the language associated with BDSM really problematic. "Domination", "submission", "objectification", "sadism", "masochism", "bondage", etc. Of course, we know these terms don't necessarily have to represent practices that are repressive/oppressive to women, but it's hard to explain them when they are so commonly used by feminists to mean something so entirely different. I think Pat Califia describes this difficulty with buzzwords briefly, but I wonder why feminist SM practitioners have not sought to make changes in the way we use those terms.

Do we need a whole new language of buzzwords to describe BDSM in feminist terms? Or is it partially using these buzzwords transgressively that, to put it bluntly, gets us off?

In other news, I have been reading some interesting books and articles on BDSM and related topics. I'm going to add a booklist to this blog, and would appreciate any ideas you might have, also...

23 comments:

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I'm personally really wary of the whole concept of coming up with a whole new set of jargon to replace the established jargon. (Especially when it is to better suit a particular agenda.)

For a bunch of reasons, but one of them is that I do think it winds up obfuscating communication in the long run. Having words with multiple established meanings makes communication fiddly, yes, but I don't think trying to change the words will actually help that any. In fact, I suspect that any endeavour would only invite mockery and accusations of "political correctness", probably "political correctness intended to mask the genuine problems with blah blah blah ..."

(While you're adding things to the blog design, could we get a recent comments widget?)

Trinity said...

What Kiya said.

I get told by people outside my communities all the time that I should "want new words" because "sadomasochism" sounds like lust murder and scares people. Now we want to get rid of domination and submission too? Ay caramba.

I think fighting for our words is deeply important. It's important to tell people something is an insult, and why, rather than hand-flapping and going "I don't mean MASOCHISM, I mean 'intense stimulation'!" or similar weird phrases that don't sound like anything real or human. (My personal pet peeve here is "Power Exchange" -- sex should never sound like someone's investing in the stock market.)

Defining ourselves in terms of what the mainstream wants means asserting that the mainstream gets something right about us. That we don't deserve space until we can find polite little words for the things we do. (Can prettying up the actual things we do be far behind?)

I call myself a sadomasochist because I deserve space and respect even under a label people tell me is uncomfortable, negative, or bad. I deserve space whether they like it or not. I deserve space whether I'm "confrontational," "direct," "unsettling," or cute and fuzzy.

I wish you the best of luck coming up with a new lexicon that works for you (and I truly do hope you share it here), but that's really not a strategy I can get behind.

Trinity said...

I mean, when you let your opponents decide what words mean, you've let them win.

thene said...

I mean, when you let your opponents decide what words mean, you've let them win.

I can see analogies here with the appropriation of words like 'gay', 'nigger', etc, but it's not like these words (with two notable exceptions) began in BDSM, or 'belong' to BDSMers in any meaningful sense - merely that there's two separate usages of the terms floating around. They have perfectly useful, valid meanings in their non-sexual contexts. Objectification, for instance - acknowledging the fact that feminists use this word to talk about a particular non-consensual practice =/= letting opponents decide what words mean, surely?


Would adding 'consensual' as a prefix when you mean words in a BDSM sense be appropriate, or just lame? 'Consensual domination', 'consensual bondage', etc.

Trinity said...

"I can see analogies here with the appropriation of words like 'gay', 'nigger', etc, but it's not like these words (with two notable exceptions) began in BDSM, or 'belong' to BDSMers in any meaningful sense"

I think I can see that, but I don't think you're right -- while it's true that, for example, "sadomasochist" was coined by the mental health establishment of the time, as far as I can tell so was "homosexual." And "nigger" wasn't coined by the people to whom it referred either. In each case it's been reclaimed in certain senses (or at least some people argue such; I've got a paper somewhere here arguing that "nigger" is unreclaimable and that the people who do use it for themselves are making a mistake).

"Sadomasochist" as a word came into being, as I understand it, as a word for us. It wasn't already there, so far as I know, the way "objectification" was.

(And honestly -- when did the use of objectification as feminists use it begin? I'm not sure. It may have had its roots in Marx or perhaps even in Kant -- but I don't know if it was used then quite in the same way anyway.)

thene said...

I hadn't thought of the outside/medical uses of those terms before - they're all 'othering' words, I guess?

Mighty Fast Pig said...

Language is a tricky thing, and a hard thing to engineer deliberately. "Pervert" has to a certain extent been reclaimed, as has "queer" but those are the only examples I can think of.

As for creating new terms, Patrick Califia proposed using "body stress" instead of "pain" in discussing BDSM, but I don't think it has caught on.

I've been thinking of BDSM in terms of Victor Turner's theory of ritual, to create a theory of kink that doesn't have roots in medical terms. I don't know if my theory will ever be widely read, but even if it was I don't think it will trickle down to regular use.

Trinity said...

I dunno about body stress. Part of me likes it and part of me wonders what that would be, really.

Mighty Fast Pig said...

Masochism was coined by Krafft-Ebing for Psychopathia Sexualis, based on the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Sadism was coined a few decades before that, though not with a particular sexual sense until later. Krafft-Ebing was the first to put those two terms side by side.

"Sadomasochism" appeared some time after Krafft-Ebing (IIRC.)

Before that, there were medical terms like "tyrannism and passivism" and "algolagnia," but they've been consigned to the dustheap of history.

To find a term that didn't come from medical discourse, you'd have to go back to the 18th century and use terms like "libertine", "flagellant", etc.

Trinity said...

Why are we finding a term that doesn't come from medical discourse again?

echomikeromeo said...

I'd argue that "sadism" and "masochism" aren't necessarily terms with a medical connotation, though - because of their origins, they're terms with a literary connotation, and that seems like a positive thing to me. The words always remind me of the authors who engendered them.

It probably goes without saying, but labels are a tricky business.

Anonymous said...

I would respectfully suggest the technique I used for ambiguous terms when doing my thesis: 'I define (fill in appropriate word here) as (more or less lengthy explanation). It is a bitch to do, and takes up space in one's introduction, but it is an excellent defense against misreadings.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and sorry, forgot to signt he above.
lalouve

Trinity said...

yeah echomike... THAT

SnowdropExplodes said...

I don't see why we need a new lingo too replace the one we already have, and here's why:

There are 80,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary spent listing all the definitions of "set".

In other words, terms have more than one meaning, and even when they have approximately the same meaning, the context can make all the difference to the significance.

For example, a sadist is defined as "a person who gains sexual pleasure from inflicting pain or suffering on others". That is, without a doubt, what I am. I don't need another word for it. But I'm a sadist within the context of BDSM, with its principles of informed consent, and practices conducted with due regard to the safety and well-being of all participants. If I were to use the same word in the context of a criminal investigation, people would, indeed, assume a context of uncontrolled, non-consensual, unsafe activity leading to someone being hideously assaulted.

I think it is far more important to educate those who would like to tell us what we are, about the particular definitions and contexts that exist within BDSM rather than trying to come up with new words or phrases.

Incidentally, MFP, I don't think "pervert" is a name that should be claimed, because to me it means rapists and paedophiles - in other words, people whose sexual behaviour really is beyond the pale.

Trinity said...

"For example, a sadist is defined as "a person who gains sexual pleasure from inflicting pain or suffering on others". That is, without a doubt, what I am. I don't need another word for it. But I'm a sadist within the context of BDSM, with its principles of informed consent, and practices conducted with due regard to the safety and well-being of all participants."

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

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Anonymous said...

The inability to communicate with these establised jargons has been so painfully obvious on the "kink meeting sites" like alt, bondage and collar that I gave up on all of them.
I find a spirituality to do with all of the jargon we are mentioning, there is definitely a lot beyond words to me in these.
There is something about being in the same room with others pursuing these jargons, sometimes it is erotic and intense, other times it is not pleasant at all-richina (something is wrong with my google profile-does not link)

The Firefightrix said...

"For example, a sadist is defined as "a person who gains sexual pleasure from inflicting pain or suffering on others". That is, without a doubt, what I am. I don't need another word for it. But I'm a sadist within the context of BDSM, with its principles of informed consent, and practices conducted with due regard to the safety and well-being of all participants."

But really, looking at it this way, "sadist" is not truly what we are. We are much more specific than sadists. We are even more specific than sexual sadists. We have different words for cook and chef. Why couldn't we have different words for someone who inflicts pain and someone who makes pain delicious? >:)
And wouldn't a masochist in the context of BDSM be more of a pain connoisseur

SnowdropExplodes said...

But really, looking at it this way, "sadist" is not truly what we are. We are much more specific than sadists. We are even more specific than sexual sadists. We have different words for cook and chef. Why couldn't we have different words for someone who inflicts pain and someone who makes pain delicious?

Well, I like inflicting pain on people who are not masochists, too - in fact I enjoy it more when a submissive gives her pain to me without deriving direct pleasure from it herself ("indirect pleasure" in this context would be the pleasure from serving).

So am I "inflicter of pain" or "maker of delicious pain"? Or, just possibly, both (since I enjoy causing pain to masochists, too)? You could define and delineate between all kinds of different manners of sadism and invent terms for them all, and all you would be doing is creating pigeonholes to force people into, instead of letting them describe themselves.

As for a distinction between criminal, non-consensual, sadism, and the sadism that we in BDSM do, I think we already have a term for that: "sadist Dom/me". As I said, I don't think we need another term.

Daisy said...

I respectfully disagree with Trin, or partly, anyway.

I think EXPANDING (not replacing) words is a nice idea. Example: For about 10 minutes in the 70s, the word HOMOPHILE was popular, since it replaced SEXUAL with PHILE, and liberal straight people like my second ex actually started THINKING about what it would be like not to be able to act out your LOVE for another person. So the momentary use of this word was enlightening, however briefly.

I just mentioned on Trin's blog, the Jungian term "The shadow" (as in THE SHADOW KNOWS) which I think is very apt and perfect as a description of a certain aspect of our deepest selves. I think utilizing interesting and artistic words like that is something we can all play around with. We might add some cool concepts in other languages and cultures, as we have incorporated (example) TANTRA and TANTRIC concepts into our sexual experience, too.

But I agree, no wholesale abandoning the other words in favor of new ones...that DOES sound just plain scaredy-cat to me. :P

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