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Guest Blog: The BDSM Power Exchange: Subversion, Transcendence, Sexual (R)evolution

on Tuesday, 01 April 2014. Posted in Front Page Headline

By Dulcinea Pitagora, M.A.


Modern society has come far in the last several decades in progressing towards tolerance, and perhaps even acceptance, of individuals who may not look or act the way the statistical majority does in terms of sexual and gender expression. Having said that, human consciousness remains overwhelmingly confined by rigid heteronormative definitions of sexual orientation and gender identification that reinforce binary stereotypes and the pathologization of individuals who identify outside of the mainstream. Research on the subject of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadomasochism) has historically pathologized BDSM practitioners by focusing on nonconsensual interactions that incorporate elements of sexual sadism or masochism as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [(DSM) American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Pitagora, 2013]. However, over the past two decades, BDSM desire and expression have increasingly been considered an atypical but naturally occurring variation of human sexuality that appeals to 5 to 14% of the general population (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1995; Janus and Janus, 1993). As of the latest iteration of the DSM in 2013, critics have raised arguments for the removal of the Paraphilic Disorders section, based on a lack of objective research to support its inclusion, as well as the section’s poorly written and conflicting diagnostic criteria; it has been suggested that the disorders remain included in the DSM-5 largely for historic and/or political reasons (Federoff, Di Giocchino, & Murphy, 2013; Moser, 2013).


It is heartening to see a trend toward the depathologization of atypical sexual orientations and gender identifications, as indicated by the removal of homosexuality from the DSM over a span of 30 years, and the changes to gender-based disorders that are following suit (Drescher, 2010). It stands to reason that the Paraphilic Disorders section in the DSM-5 would follow the same trajectory, given that the diagnoses were similarly created using culturally-based criteria with no basis in scientific evidence for its inclusion (Federoff, Gioacchino, & Murphy, 2013; Moser, 2013). While the change in cultural and academic perception of atypical sexual and gender expression is a long and arduous process, there seem to be signs of progress that lend a glimmer of hope to those in these fringe communities, indicating that societal tolerance and acceptance is on the horizon. For those with the end goal of equality in terms of sexual expression, this is a promising prospect. However, for those who want more than to be included in the status quo, acceptance and tolerance is not enough. That is to say, repurposing atypical sexual and gender expressions so that they fit into the mainstream idea of what is acceptable does little to further the sexual evolution of society as a whole. This line of reasoning presents a conundrum: Is the fight for sexual freedom merely about access to rights for sexual minority individuals, or also about questioning structures that limit the potential of human freedom for everyone?

In the interest of full disclosure—a concept that is a central tenet among BDSM practitioners (Pitagora, 2013)—it should be noted that the above question was appropriated from LGBT social justice activist Urvashi Vaid (2012), who proposes that equality is not necessarily the ideal end goal for those situated in the margins of sexual orientation and gender identification. Instead, a higher order goal might be to employ the inherent truths in such atypical desires and identifications in order to debunk the currently entrenched heteronormative binary systems of sexuality and gender expression. By shedding light on the way that those who practice BDSM subvert stereotypical gender roles in consensual and negotiated sexual interactions, a world of possibility could be exposed for those mired in rote sexual behaviors enacted within the constraints of societal expectation. The question asked another way: Might an evolution of human sexual behavior be possible for all individuals, no matter how mainstream and conforming, by learning from those who deviate from the sexual norm? …


Dulcinea will be presenting the entirety of this paper at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, August 14-17 in Alexandria, VA.


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