The Chronicle of Higher Education
Once confined to the murky shadows of the sexual underworld, sadomasochism and its recreational correlate, bondage and domination, have emerged into startling visibility and mainstream acceptance in books, movies, and merchandising. Two years ago, E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, a British trilogy that began as a reworking of the popular Twilight series of vampire novels and films, became a worldwide best seller that addicted its mostly women readers to graphic fantasies of erotic masochism. Last December, Harvard University granted official campus status to an undergraduate bondage and domination club. In January, Kink, a documentary produced by the actor James Franco about a successful San Francisco-based company specializing in online "fetish entertainment," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Three books from university presses dramatize the degree to which once taboo sexual subjects have gained academic legitimacy. Margot Weiss's Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (Duke University Press, 2011) and Staci Newmahr's Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy (Indiana University Press, 2011) record first-person ethnographic explorations of BDSM communities in two large American cities. (The relatively new abbreviation BDSM incorporates bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism.) Danielle J. Lindemann's Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon (University of Chicago Press, 2012) documents the world of professional dominatrixes in New York and San Francisco.
These books embody the dramatic changes in American academe over the past 40 years, propelled by social movements such as the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation. It seems like centuries ago that, as a graduate student in 1970, I was vainly searching for a faculty sponsor for my doctoral dissertation, later titled Sexual Personae, which was—hard to imagine now—the only project on sex being proposed or pursued at the Yale Graduate School. (Rescue finally came in the deus ex machina of Harold Bloom, whose classes I had never taken. Summoning me to his office, Bloom announced, "My dear, I am the only one who can direct that dissertation!") Finding a teaching job in that repressive climate proved even more difficult. By the mid- to late-1970s, however, the gold rush was on, as women's studies programs mushroomed nationwide, partly as a quick-fix administrative strategy to increase the number of women faculty on embarrassingly male-heavy campuses.
Today's market for sex topics is wide open. Major university presses balk at little these days, short of apologias for pedophilia or bestiality, and even those may be looming. However, despite the refreshing candor displayed by the three books under review, a startling prudery remains in the way their provocative subjects have been buried in a sludge of opaque theorizing, which will inevitably prevent these books from reaching a wider audience. Weiss, Newmahr, and Lindemann come through as smart, lively women, but their natural voices have been squelched by the dreary protocols of gender studies.
It is unclear whether the grave problems with these books stemmed from the authors' wary job maneuvering in a depressed market or were imposed by an authoritarian academic apparatus of politically correct advisers and outside readers. But the result is a deplorable waste. What could and should have been enduring contributions to both scholarship and cultural criticism have been deeply damaged by the authors' rote recitation of theoretical clichés.
Margot Weiss, a product of the department of cultural anthropology and the women's studies program at Duke University, is an assistant professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University. In her absorbing portrait of San Francisco as "a queer Sodom by the sea," Weiss surveys the gradual transformation of BDSM from the "more outlaw" era of gay leathermen in Folsom Street bars of the pre-AIDS era to today's largely heterosexual scene in affluent Silicon Valley, where high-tech workers congregate at private parties or convivial "munches" at chain restaurants with convenient parking lots. During her three-year fieldwork, Weiss became an archivist for the Society of Janus, which was founded in San Francisco in 1974 as America's second BDSM-support group. (The first was the Eulenspiegel Society, founded three years earlier in New York.) She also enrolled in "Dungeon Monitor" training, where she learned safety guidelines for "play parties," including proper use of whips and floggers and the adoption of a "safe word" to terminate scenes. ...