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Article from About BDSM History of Single Life : Coming to Power

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Posted 26 June 2006 - 06:12 PM

History of Single Life : Coming to Power

A series about hooking up through the ages

By Ken Mondschein


There's a certain amount of masochism inherent in putting oneself on the
dating market to begin with, but certain people have made pain an integral part
of their relationships. These are, of course, the devotees of bondage,
domination and sadomasochism (BDSM), who voluntarily enter into relationships with
extreme power imbalances. Typical, one partner gets to order around, verbally
castigate, tie up, spank, pierce and otherwise hurt and/or humiliate the
other. In other words, BDSM is much like grad school, although the BDSM crowd
tends to wear more black leather and get more erotic gratification.

The practice is as old as humanity. In his 1996 Prehistory of Sex,
archaeologist Timothy Taylor describes a prehistoric figurine of a female figure with
her hands bound behind her as the first evidence of BDSM. Cultures that have
shown a propensity for rough sex range from the ultra-civilized Romans, who
readily submitted to the scourgings that were a part of the mystery religions
they imported from the East, to the Vikings, who wore their love-bites and
nail-scratches as marks of honor. The term sadisme (after the Marquis de Sade,
bien sur) was added to the French dictionary in 1834, though the world had to
wait until 1870, when Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published Venus in Furs, for
"masochism" to join it and until 1967 for Lou Reed to write a song about it.
While such proclivities might seem an odd subject for a column ostensibly
devoted to the history of mating, BDSM deserves a closer look because its
practice says a lot about society. The correlation between the mating instinct and
the giving and receiving of pain may be a constant of the way our brains are
wired, but the form such acts take has always been shaped by culture.
Medieval ascetic mystics such as Catherine of Siena did not see self-scourging,
humiliation and extreme discipline as sexual, but they plainly derived from them
a feeling of ecstasy that would not be unfamiliar to anyone who's done time
on a St. Andrew's cross. Caning, which was the predominant form of discipline
in schools before the twentieth century, was similarly recognized as a
particularly British fetish, and whorehouses in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century

Sacher-Masoch's passion is nothing more than a burlesque inversion of
nineteenth-century bourgeois sexuality.

London kept a ready supply of canes on hand for the former public-school
students who might drop in. In the same way, Sacher-Masoch's passion for having
his wife and lovers beat, humiliate and cuckold him, when examined
objectively, is nothing more than a burlesque inversion of nineteenth-century bourgeois
sexuality, with its insistence on the moral superiority of women and
physical superiority of men.
However, American BDSM culture bears only a tenuous relation to previous
ages. For the most part, it emerged from the men who served in World War II, and
their love for machines, military gear and each other. The "leather"
subculture emerged when the style of postwar motorcycle clubs was adopted by gay
men, to whom slipping into a biker jacket and onto a military-surplus Harley as
protection from harassment, a means of finding potential sex partners and a
huge turn-on. The anthropologist and gender theorist Gayle Rubin has
identified two stylistic poles emerging from these origins — one involving a
"military" model of hierarchy, discipline and training, and the other a "biker" model
of anarchic freedom and self-realization. These two tendencies persisted,
even after the "scene" began to incoroporate straight Baby Boomers raised on
Bettie Page, neo-medieval fans of John Norman's Gor novels, suburban goth kids
who saw handcuffs as yet another way to épater les bourgeois, and those who
didn't fit neatly into any category, such as the San Francisco-based lesbian
BDSM group Samois. To wit, New York City's Eulenspiegel Society —

What was once so shocking has become domesticated.

which was founded in 1971 and claims to be the oldest and largest BDSM
support group in the U.S. — simultaneously claims that pursuing "joy and happiness
in one's own evolving nature" is a basic human right and offers classes that
teach safewords and the proper way to tie someone up.
The BDSM subculture is more widespread than one would think. In the late
'40s, Alfred Kinsey found that twenty percent of white, college-educated males
and twelve percent of females were aroused by BDSM-oriented literature. In the
1986 book On Sex and Human Loving, Masters and Johnson estimated that five
to ten percent of Americans regularly engaged in BDSM. From my own informal
surveys of my friends in New York City, I've found that it's the rare couple
who hasn't experimented with blindfolds. The downside is that today, BDSM
imagery and experimentation — if not its actual practice as a lifestyle — has
become decidedly mainstream. What was once shocking has been domesticated, used
to do everything from selling perfume to convincing the record-buying public
that Trent Reznor is a talented musician. As an integral part of human
nature, BDSM is more than just a fad, but the way in which this need is met will
always be dictated by culture. In the end, we're all slaves to the urge to
consume products, experiences and, ultimately, each other.

Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of
A History of Single Life
"For it was not into my ear you whispered, but into my heart.
It was not my lips you kissed, but my soul."

-Judy Garland

WNCPEX Discussion*Support*Connection

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