From Issue 3.3 - February/March 1997
How Long Has This Been Going On?
It's becoming clear to most of us who write, educate or publish in this scene that we're riding a very large wave -- that an incredible number of people are opening up to the possibility of experimenting with SM, fetish, and related behaviors. I've even heard a few knowledgeable folks speculating about how long it will be accurate to refer to SM folk as a sexual minority; if current trends continue, we may just merge imperceptibly into the mainstream.
My emotions concerning this development are decidedly mixed. I hate being part of mainstreams. But I'm also wondering why, all of a sudden, everybody's hopping on the kinkwagon. Or is everybody?
It appears to me that responding erotically to the giving or receiving of pain and control is hardly anything new. It certainly doesn't require a doctoral degree in fine arts to see that many, many artists and writers through the centuries and cultures have paired dominance or submission with eroticism. A quick glance through a typical men's magazine, Harlequin romance, or Hollywood movie should be enough to offer some insight about the degree to which human beings are erotically attuned to the idea of conquering or being conquered, seducing or being seduced, overpowering or being overpowered. Nor does it take a degree in zoology to see how many animal mating behaviors are associated with ritual or with actual acts of dominance and submission.
What has changed is the framework in which we perceive these desires. Throughout most of the last couple of millennia, the erotic/romantic/domestic dominance of men over women -- codified into law, religion and convention -- was an inseparable aspect of sexuality. In addition, other exertions of non-negotiated power -- of parent over child, of captor over prisoner, of monarch over subject -- were abundant. Those who responded erotically to power taken or given did not have to look far to get their needs met (although women who wanted to take power and men who wanted to relinquish it typically had to reach outside the domestic sphere, often into the church or the military).
Slowly, however, things changed. Nations began experimenting, for the most part successfully, with political structures in which one person's opinion counted for exactly as much as his neighbor's, regardless of their social rank. The Industrial Revolution minimized the importance of physical strength, and advances in the control of unwanted pregnancy began to eliminate rationales for the control of women.
A few decades ago, perhaps inevitably, a handful of radicals proposed the shocking idea that gender was not necessarily attached to tendencies toward dominance or submission. Furthermore, they began to question the fundamental need for hierarchy, and to suggest models in which equality could be not just a political ideal, but a workable basis for domestic, romantic, and business relationships. Since this fast-growing movement was spearheaded by the gender that had the most, at least on the surface, to gain from it, it became known as the "women's movement." And its ideas permeated American culture with unprecedented speed and depth.
So, after a lot of upheaval, change, and readjustment, here we are -- still fighting the more-than-occasional battle, still trying to adjust to an incredible number of changes in every sphere from rearing kids to running countries, but with the war well on its way to being won. The personal has become political, power-with is gaining ground on power-over, and equality has become the ideal if not the reality in all but a few households.
Nirvana, right? Well, kind of. The fact is that I, and probably you, want to live in a world in which we have the opportunity to achieve according to our abilities and desires, not our gender. We also probably want our personal relationships to be egalitarian in at least some ways. We want to respect one another and to be respected, and to share equally in the risks and rewards of being in a relationship.
Yet we have at least a few millennia of human culture -- and quite possibly also some fairly deep neurological hard-wiring -- that tells us that we're going to get turned on by the idea of getting carried off, swept away -- or by the idea of taking control, of overpowering.
This is, to put it mildly, a tough conflict. Its effects all too often include diminished sexual desire, covert power struggles, misunderstood signals, perhaps even nonconsensual violence.
Enter SM: a shocking new trend in which people agree to simulate the behaviors involved in real-world power acquisition or loss for the purposes of sexual arousal and enhanced intimacy. Why am I not surprised?
Perhaps -- just perhaps -- what distinguishes SM folk from the rest of the world isn't that we eroticize dominance or submission. It's that we've developed a culture which recognizes and reinforces the boundaries between unwanted power exchange in the real world and erotic, mutually desired power exchange in the protected and magical environment of the bedroom.
Seen in this framework, SM is a fire-wall -- a barrier that keeps our sexual desires from spilling over and causing us trouble in parts of our lives where they might be unwelcome. Perhaps, in fact, SM is a necessary and inevitable outgrowth of feminism, as successful to its continued existence as birth control (another way in which we prevent our sexual desires from holding us back in the outside world).
If this is the case, SM is certainly more than a fad. It might, in fact, be a stage of development. It is certainly a paradigm shift -- one that portends possibly radical shifts in the bedroom, the workplace, and possibly even the world.
What will happen when we all know how to create a protected, bounded space in which we can fulfill our most outrageous sexual desires? When it is no longer acceptable to seize or abandon power without conscious prior negotiation? When equality and negotiated inequality are considered equally valid choices? I don't know. But I'm sure looking forward to finding out.
Lady Green is hard at work on her upcoming books The Compleat Spanker and (with Dossie Easton, as Catherine A. Liszt) The Ethical Slut. Her company, Greenery Press, publishes these and many other books on introductory and advanced SM and related sexualities. For more information, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to 3739 Balboa Ave. #195, San Francisco, CA 94121, e-mail her at email@example.com, or visit the Greenery Press website.