Thursday, 24 July 2008

Queering BDSM subcultures

I'm currently working on a big academic project on queer and SM spaces (and eventually some of it will be a conference paper -- eek!). I'm aware that plenty of communities around the world will tend to place BDSM under the big queer umbrella, if you like. But the community in the UK is not so keen to do this.

Pat Califia wrote in Public Sex:
By "radical sex", I do not simply mean sex which differs from the "norm" or heterosexual, vanilla, male-dominant intercourse. People whose erotic practices are deviant do tend to acquire an outsider's critical perspective on marriage, the family, heterosexuality, gender roles, and vanilla sex. Being a sex radical means being defiant as well as deviant.
In the UK, the majority of the community does not tend to operate from a critical perspective on most of those things. Plenty believe there are inherent, naturalised differences between the sexes that are merely acted out through gender role (and hence, often through BDSM), for instance, and many are in favour of performing to the world a normative presentation of marriage, family and gender role. With the recent advent of Max Moseley's "outing" and trial, the community has been called upon to make various statements to the press about our relationship choices, practices, etc. Of course, journalists will lift, re-word and use whichever segments of interviews they fancy (and a friend of mine found herself wildly misrepresented in a national newspaper as a consequence), but there has been this attempt to "out" BDSM in the UK as a tad fluffy, white, middle-class and Middle England -- and it's not just an impression that's circulated by the media: it's how the community want to be represented, in the main.

Obviously, I'm in favour of partially dismantling all of those things -- or at least the not-othering of choices that don't fit into those boxes. So, while BDSM in the UK is certainly deviant, we're missing that defiance -- or at least, we're missing defiance of social norms of the kind Califia's describing.

Given that this blog has a pretty international readership, I'm curious to ask: is queer viewed in a similar way within BDSM communities in other countries?
Do fetish clubs/events in other countries operate on a more pansexual basis? Is there a wide variety of sexualities and genders on display?
Is there a certain degree of social defiance and resistance to normative gender roles, relationship formations, marriage and family in other communities?*

*this isn't lazy research, by the way! I'm just beginning to unpick all these tensions, so here seems like a good place to air some of my concerns!

12 comments:

Zula said...

I can't say too much about the US community, since I've never been to a fetish club (*sad panda*) but I do want to point out there's a similar tension in the GLBTQ community. There's the people who definitely present the "whitewashed" version of homo/bi/transsexuality - i.e. "We're middle-class, white or ambiguously ethnic, monogamous, and middle-aged just like you!" And then there's the people who say, "Fuck traditional relationship templates - why should I have to conform to heteronormative ideals at all?"

Ellie said...

My perspective is coming from limited participation in fetish communities in the American South. I feel like there is some acceptance of queerness but that it generally operates parallel instead of in tandem with "straight" communities. Additionally, I know you aren't just interested in how different orientations are accepted but how more defiant gender expressions appear. Personally, I make it a point to be topped by my cross-dressing boyfriend when we play publicly. Of course it is hot but it is also very much a political statement for us. I know that it is jarring to many people's ideas about what a top is, what femininity is, what a cross-dresser is, etc. I'm looking forward to seeing how the discussion on this issue evolves.

verte said...

zula:

if you're ever over in the UK, come to Torture Garden. Much as I moan about the clubs over here an:)

Yes, I've noticed in the LGBTQ communities over here there's a particular tension over the presence of bisexuals in activist projects, spaces and communities. Of course, it's perfectly possible to be entirely heterosexual and a giant queer, loathe marriage, the hetero matrix and everything that goes with it. But being hetero still gives you a kind of privilege, I guess, and perhaps that's hard to understand when you resist and act against all those institutions that might give you those privileges. Difficult. Very difficult indeed.

verte said...

ellie:

Hahaha! My genderqueer boyfriend and I do that too! Though he hasn't been publically cross-dressing for very long. The problem is that he feels unwelcomed and that there's a kind of hostility and tension if he presents as femme in an "un-queer" space, and of course most SM spaces in London are very heterocentric -- I guess we do just need to be more defiant! Though I can understand why most people wouldn't have the courage to be. Unless these clubs are just for men, in which case they're hugely heterophobic and women pretty much aren't allowed in. There is ONE queer SM club in London, but I'm hoping as a sub-subculture it will grow...

Really interested to learn more, so I hope the replies keep coming!

Trinity said...

I think "how queer is BDSM" really depends on the spaces, clubs, and groups one is frequenting. In my experience (I'm in the US), there's the gay leather community, which is, well, full o' queer, and then the "pansexual" community, which is usually full of heterosexual men and women and bisexual women. The latter community, which tends to be the one I run in, doesn't strike me as "standard hetero" much at all, but I do get the impression that the more directly queer communities tend to think of the pansexual community as straight and kind of... diluted and uninteresting and mainstream.

Trinity said...

"Of course, it's perfectly possible to be entirely heterosexual and a giant queer, loathe marriage, the hetero matrix and everything that goes with it."

I think this really depends on who you ask. Back when I thought of myself as heterosexual with a genderfuck fetish I went through a period of openly saying I was a "straight queer." I immediately got lambasted for cultural appropriation: "You think that because pegging is a fad now, you've experienced homophobia? And now you want a free pass into OUR communities? Fuck the hell off."

Even now that I think of myself as genderqueer and not heterosexual, I still think the notion of heteroqueer makes sense to me. I don't tend to think of it as culturally appropriating, but I'm not sure exactly how much my opinion counts for. I haven't been through a lot of the oppression people get for being queer. While I am too, I have the passing privilege a lot of bisexual women get, and the passing privilege that a lot of people who are female-bodied genderqueer and not completely obvious about that get as well.

So... yeah, I don't know. I definitely think heteroqueerness, meaning hets who defy heteronormativity (and sometimes can be obvious about it in ways that get them dealt the same kind of shit that gets dealt anyone who defies gender expectations), is real. I just don't feel that I'm the kind of Voice of the Queer Community that gets to decide how the community should deal with that.

Zula said...

Trin - I second the idea of "heteroqueerness." I'm fortunate to attend a college with a burgeoning queer population (especially relative to its size), and besides that a hefty number of heterosexual people who delight in defying heteronormative roles. One favorite informal tradition on campus is "Skirt Thursdays," when EVERYONE wears skirts.* The sight of a hippy boy in a flowery ankle-length skirt always makes me go "Yum!" ;)

*Of course, if you don't want to wear a skirt, you by no means are forced to.

Fluence said...

Firstly that sounds like really interesting research and I'd love to read it when it's done.

I'm in the UK, but I don't go to BDSM clubs and gatherings much, so maybe not the best person to comment. I agree that there does seem to be some division between the Queer and BDSM communitites, although I think it's more that you get BDSM spaces that cater to the Queer or straight end of the market.

There's a strong tradition of fetish clubs that are fairly gender/sexuality mixed - it's largely based around appearance/fashion/music though.

It's an area I'm still struggling with, as when I was growing up there was more of an inclusive atmosphere, but now there seems to be a more fixed idea of who 'fits' Queer and who doesn't.

I'd like to identify as Queer, as I have a very fluid sexuality, and I play with gender a little myself, but as I'm in a monogomous hetero relationship, I feel I can't. Just to be clear, no-one has ever told me I don't fit, it's more self-censorship.

I think the key thing for the UK is that it's very much about how you seem rather than what's going on inside. Maybe that's true everywhere.

Mighty Fast Pig said...

Writing from Vancouver, BC, Canada, I believe in the concept of BDSM as something at least related to queerness. I've met kinky people who are all over the map on the queer-heteronormative axis. The group I'm on the board of has a couple of transpeople on the board (as well as people of colour) and we try to be as inclusive as possible. We have a number of transmen and lesbian regulars at our parties, and we're trying to get more gay men to attend. We're entering in the local Pride parade and partnering with the local gay male BDSM group.

That said, we're also having lots of discussions about having queer-focused events and how to promote them. The ideal represented by the somewhat discredited term "pansexual" may be a practical impossibility.

Personally, I'm kinky though not terribly queer, but I like hanging out with poly and trans people, and a kinky gathering that is 100% straight would be boring for me.

lil-laurel said...

From the northeast USA - The pansexual groups i'm part of have changed in the last 5 years to be more queer. I initially was turned off from some things, seeing the heavy straight male, straight/bi women. And the majority of it being male tops/dominants and female bottoms/submissives.

The gender/sexuality diversity really started picking up a few years ago, and i think may of been connected to a number of people in their twenties or early thirties joining and having some of those different notions about family, marriage, gender, relationships, monogomy, etc.

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