Monday, 11 August 2008

Kink and Disability

I recently posted over at the Blog of Pro-Porn Activism about a recent dust-up involving the "Barely Legal" genre of pornography. The conversation turned from why some men enjoy pornography depicting young-looking women to BDSM, and a commenter had this to say:
Like you, Trinity, my early years were all about physical suffering and disability and pain and all the things, good and bad, that come with being isolated from the "normal" process of early maturation. Barely Legal and all its imitators is just far too wholesome, odd as that may sound, to push the buttons my early life installed in me.

This is where the story gets interesting. There is almost no clinical literature regarding BDSM. Research funding to explore it is almost impossible to get, thanks to the political prejudices of grant review committees, and it's a dead-end career choice for psychological or social science researchers. Check out your local university library and you'll find an empty shelf where BDSM is concerned. Much is supposed about it and where it comes from, but almost nothing is "known" in the scientific sense of the word.

That was the very reason my late friend, the kind and lovely Dr. Robert J. Stoller, chose to make some preliminary "ethnographic" sorties into the BDSM world about twenty years ago. He was legendary for his work with transgendered people, about whom volumes of literature can be found, but when he tried to get a little background on BDSM to assist him in his studies on transpeople who were also kinky, he came up with nothing, and that just wasn't acceptable to his scientist's ever-curious mind.

Knowing he wouldn't have any support for BDSM exploration and not much spare time to pursue it, he simply used his connections through the trans community to get a few BDSM players into his office for informal chats. That's how I met him.

There weren't a lot of out kinksters at the time. This was back in the Reagan era and the leather culture was just beginning to slip a Dehner out of the closet. I'm sure his sampling, which was self-selected to a great degree, was skewed in all kinds of ways, but even the informal group discussions he organized revealed some fascinating surprises.

In a mix of gay, straight and bi tops and bottoms from a great variety of socio-economic backgrounds, more differences than similarities quickly emerged. But one curious consistency was exposed at the very first meeting of our little study group.

Virtually all we had in common, and that ALL of us had in common, were childhoods characterized by long periods of isolation due to injury or illness. It was a total shocker when it came out, as much to all of us as it was to him, but impossible to overlook. The predictable histories of sexual abuse and family violence offered up as the usual explanations were largely absent, but the injury and illness thing was everywhere. No doubt PTSD played a role, but the sources of the PTSD didn't seem to be the usual suspects.

The list of medical misfortunes was varied both in nature and severity, but it was unmistakably there. At one extreme, there was the late, great "super-masochist" Bob Flanagan, who was struggling mightily against the Cystic Fibrosis that would ultimately kill him. At the other was a middle-aged suburban stay-at-home mom who had missed a lot of school due to crippling migraine headaches. In between there were immobilizing back surgeries to correct Scoliosis, coccyx fractures, chronic tendonitis and in my case, a near still-birth resulting in permanent respiratory impairment.

The collective shock of recognition in that room was palpable and unforgettable. Here were all these BDSM-identified people with completely different specific orientations and nothing much else in common who had suffered the horrors of pediatric medicine as their only common experience.

We all instantly knew it meant something, but what? Stoller, ethical scientist that he was, couldn't be drawn into any speculations about the causal connection, if any, between these traumas and our adult kinks, and I have no idea to this day what the internal mechanisms might have been. But I'm convinced they were there and are there now, working away in my head.

Perhaps the experience of prolonged helplessness and suffering, surrounded by anxious adults holding you down and doing hurtful things to you while insisting (and clearly believing) that you would feel better afterward, sometimes even achieving that result at least temporarily, had some impact on our perceptions of affection and intimacy.

It certainly created atypical relationships with our own bodies, which generated misery and relief in vast and totally unpredictable quantities. Perhaps the experience created a psychological link between invasive treatment and endophin release. No doubt it raised a lifetime's worth of control issues.

But this is all pure guesswork. Because clinical investigation is such a non-starter, we'll never know much more than we know now about this phenomenon. I personally believe that these things tended to trigger latent genetic tendencies toward what Stoller called "the erotocization of hate." Some of us are wired for BDSM the way others are wired for same-sex attraction, and long periods of bodily unruliness, coupled with the social marginalization that creates, informed our fantasy lives in a way that people who had neither the predisposition nor the experiences that set it off can never know.

So, that's my interesting by woefully incomplete information on this phenomenon, but I think it deserves our attention because it runs counter to all the political baggage loaded onto BDSM, its practitioners and their tastes in entertainment by unfriendly outsiders.

No one knows anything about this, but many people think they do, and what they think they know would seem to be pretty far off the mark from what little information we do have.
Let me first note that I read Stoller's book, and the impression I got of it was that he chose some wildly inappropriate people to hold up as typical SMers. Ernest here claims he interviewed real leatherfolk and kinksters, so I may be misremembering, but I most remember mentions of drugs, rampant sexism, wildly unsafe practices that even the practitioners themselves felt uneasy about, and constant dysfunctional drama. Just like any other set of people, we have our sexists, our junkies, our broken people, but it really bothered me that he chose such people to represent us in his book about us, that he chose that to be the face he, as a "legitimate" scientist/therapist, presented of a stigmatized population.

I personally do not feel that "the eroticization of hatred" is in any way a description of what we do -- and I'm shocked that if someone observed large proportions of disability and illness among us, he'd say something so disgusting as that people with disabilities are erotically hooked on hatred.

I've also seen the book used to tell people (well, me) that I must be wrong to think BDSM people can be emotionally healthy, as we're clearly delving into agressive feelings/hatred because we've got unresolved issues. After all, a PSYCHOANALYST said so! And I'm just a person! With an agenda! So I couldn't be right!

So... well, while I do think that perhaps some of us, particularly edgeplayers, may be more open to exploring our aggressive feelings, I'm deeply alarmed by Stoller's casual use of "hatred" to describe us. But I feel the need to also note Ernest's clear respect for the man... perhaps "hate" means something different to him than to me. I only hope that the "hatred" line is understood differently than it sounded to me, and than it sounded to that professor, by most readers -- though I fear deeply that it's not.

Either way, if Stoller knew of the struggles we've gone through for legitimacy -- and it sounds like he did -- he seems at the very least faultable for such an incendiary phrasing.

But, like I said, it's been a long time since I threw said book down in disgust, and Ernest likes the guy, and I'm not the one who actually spoke with him. So moving right along, here's a more fleshed-out version of my response there:

As far as the observation you mention... I honestly think kinky orientations are quite common among people with disabilities, and I've been open before about my opinion that some people's anti-SM sentiments (or better said anti-pain play sentiments) strike me as honestly ableist.

Because what they boil down to is telling people how they can, or how they ought, use their bodies. What kinds of stimulation mean pleasure, and what kind mean badness. It's taking a normative body-map and saying everyone should fit it, and if you don't you're consenting to be abused.

What I hear when I hear people say liking pain play is "abnormal", when by that they mean wrong, bad, or unhealthy, is the same thing I hear when someone tells me that oh, sure, wheelchairs are great, but it's really natural to walk.

What I hear is that a variation (or even an adaptation, when we find that using our bodies in ways considered standard do not work for us) makes you inferior to the norm. I hear the centering and the privileging of a standard body, with standard responses.

(And I think it's a "standard body" that may not even exist, just as the hairless, manicured, trimmed and tweaked body that gets called "normal woman" doesn't. I don't think endorphin highs from "pain" are abnormal in any way. I think it's just part of how human bodies function.)

And the privileging of such a body is depressingly familiar to me as a person with a physical disability.

15 comments:

Gaina said...

I am a disabled woman who had a very happy, secure childhood - with the expected surgeries and assessmenst that go with a lot of disabilities thrown in - and I have a theory.

Disabled people spend so much of their childhood and teens not being in charge of what's done to their bodies, and having it viewed more like a broken down vehicle that needs a mechanic than a part of a whole person with emotions attached that as adults we (ok well I) feel disconnected from our (my) bodies and struggle to see ourselves as sensual, 'real' people. This may understandably manifest in want to 're-claim' our bodies and see them as lovely, and control what's done with and to them. This in turn, informs our sexual preferences.

Personally I can't say I get any arousal from the idea of discomfort because of my history of numerous surgeries, but the domination? Oh that interests me! I don't like the idea of humiliating anyone, but the idea of having a willing partner to cater to my every whim who gets as much enjoyment as I do out of the process? Well that sounds like fun.

Funnily enough I've had people (online) ask me to dominate them once they realise I'm a wheelchair user. At first I didn't reply because I had no clue what they were talking about until very recently - that's how innocent I was. Then I would give them a short sharp 'naff off!' until I realised that by insulting them I'd actually probably made them very happy! haha.

Societal attitudes to disability and sexuality can also be pretty wierd (i.e. disabled people aren't expected to want or have sex and if you are able-bodied and find someone attractive who happens to be disabled you're labled 'wierd' or a devotee).

This 'social conditioning' can be so effective that you do have to stop yourself wondering as a disabled person if the 'normal' people are right and I would only ever be fancied by someone who has a kink for disability rather than 'hey you're an interesting lady who happens to be on wheels'.

Trinity said...

"
Disabled people spend so much of their childhood and teens not being in charge of what's done to their bodies, and having it viewed more like a broken down vehicle that needs a mechanic than a part of a whole person with emotions attached that as adults we (ok well I) feel disconnected from our (my) bodies and struggle to see ourselves as sensual, 'real' people. This may understandably manifest in want to 're-claim' our bodies and see them as lovely, and control what's done with and to them. This in turn, informs our sexual preferences."

Yes, EXACTLY.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post. I'm a male who has "been into" kink since my years as a youngster. I don't have any physical disabilities and didn't experience any childhood trauma other than the long existential crisis of being a "gifted" child in a mundane world. I can see the value of people exploring the origins of their sexuality, but I also have problems with any effort to source my kinkiness as a "problem" that was caused by something in my childhood. Looking back, some aspects of my sexuality were probably caused by things in popular culture, but who cares? I consider myself to be a mentally healthy adult, although most people would probably describe me as a different kind of person. I have no need for head shrinkers or psychology. I'm wary of any non-kinkster who thinks that the origins of people's kinkiness is a subject worthy of discussion. Do we get to discuss the origins of these critic's interest in vanilla sexuality?

Trinity said...

Anon: I've been discussing Stoller with Ernest, a kinkster who knew him well apparently, and Ernest claims that Stoller was misrepresented often (more here) While I really didn't like Stoller's book, I also think that at least considering that he may have been misguided and on our side adds a wrinkle to the issue.

And I do think that *research* on us is actually more of a good thing than a bad thing. The few positive studies out there may help people to understand that they're often mistaken about us and our motivations.

I'll have to look again at Stoller's book, but it didn't strike me as research first read, so much as it did "interviewing random folks" (and as I asked Ernest there, I did/do wonder why there werent more people affiliated with major organizations if it was meant to be research.) If I am mistaken, that's, well... my mistake.

Trinity said...

But also, yes, I strongly agree with this:

"I'm wary of any non-kinkster who thinks that the origins of people's kinkiness is a subject worthy of discussion. Do we get to discuss the origins of these critics' interest in vanilla sexuality?"

Zula said...

I've never had so much as stitches my entire life, and all the kinksters I know personally (save one) have had similarly illness/injury-free childhoods. I know the adage "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data,'" but I still have to wonder about the veracity of this guy's conclusion. I'll wait until there's more vigorous research on the subject before I throw in my hat one way or the other.

V said...

I became disabled at 20 and really had next to no sex life for 7 years after that, despite being married to a wonderful guy.

Now I'm finally getting back into sex and I love being dominated. A little pain isn't bad either, even though I'm in pain 24/7 and hate it, the endorphins from sex make ALL my pains go away.

I think your blog has a very very interesting idea no one has hit on, but maybe they should.

kitrona said...

I'm not kinky (much... I think it'd be fun to be dominating, but that opportunity hasn't arisen), but your last line about endorphins really made me grin. I can understand how pain with a purpose can get those feel-good juices flowing; heck, it happened to me last week when I got my second tattoo. I walked out of there practically drunk on the endorphin high! It makes sense to me that people would incorporate that into other things that make them feel good.

Interesting and thought-provoking article. I admit to some curiosity about SM, but I agree that the people who are obsessed with the origins of such are missing the point and "othering" in a very disrespectful way.

(I'd write more but dinner's done. :) )

Anonymous said...

The article was very interesting and informative for me. weight loss Read a useful article about tramadol tramadol

sports handicapping software said...

I wonder why I did not knew this before.... it was a good read. You are working on a very good blog.. I look forward to visit your blog again....

Anonymous said...

UnderstandingGW2 Gems he or she couldn't have assistance pertaining to BDSM pursuit but not very much free time to go after it, they basically utilised the connections over the trans group to have a number of BDSM gamers in his or her place of Diablo III goldwork regarding everyday conversations.

Anonymous said...

If you need Diablo 3 Gold, we would like to recommend you sign up VIP member in Diabloiiigold.com. Abundant benefits for VIP member can support you buy Diablo 3 Gold fast and easy.24 hours customer service are glad to help you anytime.

Seacanoeist Mark said...

I liked your article, I will share your article to everyone!!




WoW gold|Diablo 3 Gold|RS Gold|Cheap Diablo 3 Gold

Anonymous said...

Upgraded durch den dass Sie sollten PvP wählen, [url=http://www.schnellgold.de]wow gold kaufen[/url] und im Kopf behalten ein paar Dinge. Sie müssen sich Dinge wie der Mob Niveau und Ihre Area of ??Effect Spezifikation zu berücksichtigen. In der Regel nur ein Wort: tot, sagte der Heilige Priester Schurke Begegnungen. Rogue für Sie berechnet, wenn der rebellische am Ende sagen, ist dein Leben immer in den Händen, und Sie können nicht so leicht entkommen. Also, sollten Sie sicher sein, nicht mit Zohan [url=http://www.schnellgold.de]wow gold lastschrift[/url] an die Rogues und legen Sie die Aufgabe in das Feld ein. Es ist einzigartig und enden mit dem Tod. wenn Sie Ihre Fähigkeiten verbessern wollen Verkauf von großen und mehr wow gold können, wird es auch Ihnen helfen, schnell. Aber Sie können nicht nur schnell, dass Sie einen Nachteil im PvP zu finden. Aber Sie wissen, welche [url=http://www.schnellgold.de]wow gamecard[/url] Klasse Sie wählen sollten?

Anonymous said...

Upgraded durch den dass Sie sollten PvP wählen, wow gold kaufen und im Kopf behalten ein paar Dinge. Sie müssen sich Dinge wie der Mob Niveau und Ihre Area of ??Effect Spezifikation zu berücksichtigen. In der Regel nur ein Wort: tot, sagte der Heilige Priester Schurke Begegnungen. Rogue für Sie berechnet, wenn der rebellische am Ende sagen, ist dein Leben immer in den Händen, und Sie können nicht so leicht entkommen. Also, sollten Sie sicher sein, nicht mit Zohan wow gold lastschrift an die Rogues und legen Sie die Aufgabe in das Feld ein. Es ist einzigartig und enden mit dem Tod. wenn Sie Ihre Fähigkeiten verbessern wollen Verkauf von großen und mehr wow gold können, wird es auch Ihnen helfen, schnell. Aber Sie können nicht nur schnell, dass Sie einen Nachteil im PvP zu finden. Aber Sie wissen, welche wow gamecard Klasse Sie wählen sollten?