- Transgressive and Transformative Gendered Sexual Practices and White Privileges: The Case of the Dyke/Trans BDSM Communities
In this essay I explore the personal-political pleasures and limits of transgressing and transforming cultural/social/political categories of hierarchy through embodied, sexualized practices. To do so I analyze how dyke/trans BDSM practitioners privilege the practice of transgressing and transforming gender boundaries by neglecting or marginalizing the conscious engagement with racial transgressions and transformations.1 In the essay I draw on my empirical study on dyke/trans-inclusive and queer BDSM communities.
Exploring and Transgressing Boundaries through BDSM Practices
The frame for playfully engaging with and transgressing social hierarchies and norms, cultural taboos, and personal boundaries within BDSM is the construction of a social space (Schütz and Luckmann 1979, 48 f.) that is experienced as a safe space (Matt, Scout, Terry, United States, Tony, Germany), “playground” (Connie, Germany) or “field for experimentation” (Jonas, Europe).2 What qualifies the space as safe for playing and experimenting is in part general BDSM standards and characteristics, such as negotiating and establishing consensuality; communicating, respecting, and pushing boundaries; dramatizing and thus making visible and debatable power relations and stereotypes; emphasizing emotional and physical intensity in sexuality; and translating sexual fantasies into reality, most notably through role play.
Yet the pushing of individual and sociocultural boundaries and the quest for intense bodily and psychological experiences also situates BDSM practices in a complex and sometimes paradoxical matrix of danger and safety: the risky nature of some BDSM practices necessitated the implementation of safety measures and ethics in the community in the first place.3 A frame of safety and consensuality ensured by certain commonly [End Page 233] accepted standards of behavior simultaneously is exactly what enables some individuals to explore BDSM practices, while for others it takes off the edge or thrill by making things too safe and sterile when it is exactly the inherent risks or dangers that make this path worthwhile or sexy. The white bisexual femme Anya (Europe) considers BDSM an emotionally dangerous path in that one can never foresee what feelings certain acts might trigger, but like many other BDSM practitioners, she values transgression of one’s own limits as a chance to grow. Indeed, for some of my interview partners the main incentive to practice BDSM is to explore and get to know one’s own boundaries or push/transgress them, or both, within a framework of negotiated consent.
Another great motivation for queers and trans people to engage in BDSM is that in contrast to everyday life, in BDSM spaces one can consciously choose and negotiate roles and identities for play. Therefore, the participants may agree upon the gender, race, age, class, or status one chooses for a scene in a consensual manner, and in this sense BDSM has the potential to become the playground Connie refers to.
Additionally, the dyke+ community excludes cis men, straight BDSM practitioners and vanilla people who might have prejudices against grown-ups who love to play in this way or might not be able to cope with queer sexualities.4 As the white pansexual genderqueer femme Neila (Germany) points out, it creates a space that is perceived as devoid of predefined power relations in regard to gender and sexuality, if not in regard to other social power structures such as race or class. Therefore, most people who move in (and sometimes out) of the dyke+ BDSM communities share the view that “SM provides a safe space for people to fuck with their gender and also for their gender identity to be respected” and that gender is “not at all based on biology, because there are lots of people who don’t identify as boys in their everyday life, but within SM context they’ll be boys” (Matt), which sets this community apart from the gay male and straight BDSM communities as well as the vanilla dyke/lesbian communities (Hale 2003).5 Gender-based play often incorporates sexual preference and age as well, as is evident through the popularity of “fag play” and “Daddy/boy.”
A lot of role plays explicitly or implicitly make references to class and some to race, most...