Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality

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In Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Margot Weiss discusses the social, economic, class, race, and gender inequalities of the BDSM scene in San Francisco, and what Weiss calls circuits between those dynamics. She says, “I call such dynamics a circuit to draw attention not only to the dense connections… but also to the functionality, the effects of these connections.”[i] Weiss applies an ethnographic analysis to identify circuits in the BDSM scene based interviews she conducted with practitioners and participants in the scene and from in-person observations of various BDSM events, classes, and practices. As part of her class, gender, and racial analyses of the BDSM scene, Weiss cites and references a wide array of scholars in fields as diverse as economics, gender, sexuality and queer studies, history, politics, and race studies. Techniques of Pleasure provides a thorough, informative, and original account of the various dynamics within the BDSM community.

Weiss claims in her book, “I explore BDSM as a series of sexual, social, and bodily practices that provide opportunities to remake and consolidate forms of subjectivity built both on capitalist practices of consumption and production and on the regulatory normalization of race, gender, and sexuality.”[ii] She describes the various ways individuals in the scene argue that their interactions subvert various societal norms. Then, Weiss shows how the BDSM scene actually relies on and perpetuates racial, gender, and class norms to derive the power of the community’s alternative sexual practices. The book begins with an account of how and why the kink sexual scene in San Francisco evolved from a small, close-knit, lower class, largely queer community into a larger, predominately white, middle class one. As San Francisco developed an economy dependent on high-income information technology jobs, the demographics of the city and the scene changed to reflect the people more likely to hold those jobs. From there, Weiss discusses the prevalence of toys in the scene, arguing that the focus on material toys gives an implicit status and pleasure advantage to the white middle class practitioners who can afford both the toys themselves and the time to master their use. She finishes with a discussion of the social and political impact of BDSM sex and scenes. Weiss describes how the explicit, intentional power exchange in BDSM depends on existence of actual power inequalities based on race, class, and gender for their emotional impact and sexual pleasure. For example, in the scene it is considered ‘more acceptable’ for a woman to be a submissive than a man, reflecting the patriarchal power men have in society in general.[iii] Weiss’ analysis and discussion of the circuits she describes in the BDSM scene are consistently insightful, and wonderfully account for the impacts that intersections of class, race, and gender have on the practices she observed.

The analysis that Weiss brings to the BDSM scene are informed by her methods of gathering relevant information. She interviewed practitioners in the scene, and also experienced various parties, events, classes, workshops, and scenes as an observer. Weiss interviewed sixty-one participants “most [of whom] were professional-class white people in long-term relationships.”[iv] Bits and pieces of the transcripts of these interviews were included in the text, supporting and complicating claims made by Weiss and other scholars whose work she references. The quotations are a definite highlight of this book. The original voices and experiences of the interviewees shine through authentically, adding some much needed personality to the otherwise academic language of the book. The practitioner’s words provided frank and fascinating windows into the scene. Weiss also includes detailed descriptions of a variety of kink events such as slave auctions, national conferences, private bondage parties, takedown workshop demonstrations, as well more less sexually charged events such as munches, social gatherings for food and drink that do not involve any BDSM practices at all. However, the author uses a decidedly detached tone and point of view. Weiss says she told the people she interviewed that she is not into BDSM, and implies that she did not participate in any scenes as part of research for this book. Her personal taste for BDSM is unclear: “I found that the lose-lose situation of being, on the one hand, too close to or overinvested in SM or, on the other hand, too distant from or incapable of understanding it was more easily negotiated with SM practitioners… I have placed the imaginations and experiences of my interviewees and their scenes at the center of this book.”[v] Maintaining a measured distance from one’s subject of study in the name of academic integrity is certainly admirable. However, I would be fascinated to hear how direct participation in a BDSM scene would influence her analysis. That being said, it is certainly unreasonable to expect that the author would be interested in or willing to take part in a scene, much less relate such an intimate experience to such an impersonal audience.

Weiss locates her book and her argument firmly within the various class, racial, and gender conversations about BDSM. In accordance with her intersectional approach, she references gender theorists such as Judith Butler and Michael Foucault and other feminist theorists, as well as various economists, historians, journalists, race theorists, and activists. Each claim Weiss makes is carefully explained in reference to the work of previous scholars, making sure to clearly outline which ideas she finds useful for her own analysis and which concepts she intentionally disagrees with or discards. However, the quotations from other scholars were almost always outshone by the accounts of practitioners in the scene. The interviews were always more interesting and more enlightening, and it is curious that Weiss chose not to lean more heavily on the visceral accounts and surprisingly cogent arguments made by people in the scene, rather than academic arguments made by scholars who may or may not actually have experience in what they are discussing.

Techniques of Pleasure provides an original, intersectional account of the politics of the BDSM scene in San Francisco. While it is easy to view a community based on fringe sex acts as transgressing social norms, Weiss compellingly argues that, to the contrary, the BDSM scene depends on and reproduces those very norms it claims to transgress. The book is well-researched, and the entertaining descriptions and accounts of various BDSM practices keep even the non-academic reader well enough engaged to digest Weiss’ arguments. This book stands as an informative, unique account of the complex dynamics present in the BDSM scene.

 

Works Cited:

[i] Weiss, Margot Danielle. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. PDF. Page 7.

[ii] Weiss, page 20.

[iii] Weiss, pages 176-177.

[iv] Weiss, page 26.

[v] Weiss, pages 29-30.