Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM & the Circuits of Sexuality

March 2012

Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality is not the sort of sexy bedtime reading you might imagine upon glancing the title. It’s a dense, academic text best absorbed early and bright-eyed with a fresh cup of coffee. Author and anthropologist Margot Weiss’s ethnographic study of the Bay Area’s organized BDSM community in the early 2ooos (which began as her PhD thesis research in 2000) examines BDSM against the filter of larger systems of neoliberalism, capitalism, and commoditization.

From its origins with the Folsom leathermen in the 1970s, San Francisco’s BDSM community was a transgressive word-of-mouth scene that one was brought into and mentored by older, more experienced practitioners.

By the time Weiss began research for her book, the scene had shifted from the urban underground model to an organized, self-regulating community dominated by white hetero couples living in upwardly mobile Silicon Valley. Through her research, which included interviewing more than Go Bay Area BDSM practitioners, joining the West Coast’s largest BDSM organization, and attending technique workshops, dungeon parties, and “munches” (plainclothes BDSM meet-and-greets held at local bars and restaurants), Weiss set out to illustrate that the “scene,” with its emphasis on formal education, proper clothing, gear, and safety regulations, did not actually transgress norms, but existed in reference or reaction to them.

By integrating neoliberal ideals such as free choice and individual responsibility, Weiss states, the BDSM community posits itself as existing outside of prevalent systems of oppression. The scene is viewed as a place where practitioners, or “players ,” are free to choose their identity, and where racial and cultural traumas such as rape, Nazi interrogation, or slave/master domination can be played out in a safe space.
The often white, coupled, hetero practitioners’ ability to “choose” risk by pushing their physical and psychological boundaries or playing with narratives of race and gender is, in itself, a privilege.

Techniques of Pleasure invites readers to examine how “BDSM acts within and on–appropriating, reiterating, reinforcing those larger social systems of domination instead of just looking at it as trangressive sexual practices.” Throughout the text, Weiss draws circuits between the subjective (the private) and the socioeconomic (the public), refuting the idea that sex is private and therefore outside of systems of oppression.

As an academic text, the book is limited by its research parameters. Its sole concern with the organized BDSM scene in the Bay Area excludes many of the area’s queer, trans, and nonwhite players. Though she never reveals her methods, Weiss claims she tried to engage a more diverse population in the study with little success. While readers may balk at this exclusion, it could be argued that the scope of her research supports its very thesis: that even transgression can become codified and, ultimately, oppressive. These topics are ripe for debate, and that alone makes Techniques of Pleasure a vital, if controversial, contribution to the body of writing and theory on BDSM.

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