Playing on the Edge
Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy
Publication Year: 2011
Representations of consensual sadomasochism range from the dark, seedy undergrounds of crime thrillers to the fetishized pornographic images of sitcoms and erotica. In this pathbreaking book, ethnographer Staci Newmahr delves into the social space of a public, pansexual SM community to understand sadomasochism from the inside out. Based on four years of in-depth and immersive participant observation, she juxtaposes her experiences in the field with the life stories of community members, providing a richly detailed portrait of SM as a social space in which experiences of "violence" intersect with experiences of the erotic. She shows that SM is a recreational and deeply gendered risk-taking endeavor, through which participants negotiate boundaries between chaos and order. Playing on the Edge challenges our assumptions about sadomasochism, sexuality, eroticism, and emotional experience, exploring what we mean by intimacy, and how, exactly, we achieve it.
Published by: Indiana University Press
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Prior to 1971, the SM community (“the scene”) in the United States was underground, and mainly gay. Heterosexual people with interest in SM likely either pursued it privately or didn’t pursue it. In 1971, the first SM organization (The Eulenspiegel Society, or TES) in the country was founded in New York City, and the heterosexual SM scene was born. Three years later, the pansexual Society of...
Part 1: People
1. Defiance: Bodies, Minds, and Marginality
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The people in Caeden view themselves as outsiders. They live their lives on the fringes of social acceptance. For much of this marginal experience, they are indebted to particular and shared characteristics. These characteristics would seem, at first glance, to exist entirely independently of sadomasochism. Many of the members of this community lived on the margins prior to developing...
2. Geeks and Freaks: Marginal Identity and Community
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Like “identity,” the term “community” is contested in the social sciences. Its meanings vary widely, and criteria for its use are elusive.1 It is always, however, about boundaries. The notion of community is used, in academic writing and in American discourse, to draw lines between insiders and outsiders. This division is what brings the members of Caeden—and what compels me—to consider it a community. Used interchangeably with...
Part 2: Play
3. Tipping the Scales: Striving for Imbalance
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In the perspective of SM as role play, consenting adults are free to suspend their individual lived realities for the sake of erotic enjoyment; the teacher spanks the misbehaving student in order to enhance the sex life of the couple. Role-playing, as Gary Alan Fine illustrates in his study of fantasy gaming, involves a distancing from their roles even as they are engaged; during play, they say, for example, “I hit him” rather than actually hit him...
4. Fringe Benefits: The Rewards of SM Play
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Within the SM community, the euphemism for play, “what it is that we do,” suggests that an adequate description of SM is elusive and complex. The community in Caeden can be understood more fully as “serious leisure” (Stebbins 1982): a devotion to the pursuit of an activity that requires specialized skills and resources, and provides particular benefits. The understanding of a recreational activity as serious leisure distinguishes it from...
5. Badasses, Servants, and Martyrs: Gender Performances
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On the surface, gender does not organize community life or play in Caeden. It is remarkably absent from the discourse of the scene. SM, of course, is deeply gendered, as is community life, but in many ways, the binary between top and bottom replaces the gender dichotomy in the social fabric of the community. Through play, however, gender is performed, mimicked, extended, challenged, and subverted. ...
Part 3: Edges
6. Reconcilable Differences: Pain, Eroticism, and Violence
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In her deconstruction of the feminist reconceptualization of rape as violence rather than sex, Catharine MacKinnon (1989) argues that this position maintains the ideological and conceptual distinction between sex and violence: “Whatever is sex, cannot be violent; whatever is violent, cannot be sex” (1989, 323). Her underlying objection in this argument, of course, is to the ideological preservation of “the ‘sex is good’ norm,” rather than to the implications of its corollary, “violence is bad.” Regardless of the moral position of her argument, MacKinnon’s...
7. Collaborating the Edge: Feminism and Edgework
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The credo of the SM community is SSC—Safe, Sane, and Consensual. For participants, SSC is what differentiates SM from other (allegedly less moral and more criminal) activities, such as assault and rape. Though the three concepts are subjective, most of the community is in consensus about their use and meaning. The criteria for “sane” are most ambiguous. Generally, “sane” is understood as having full awareness of the risks involved; activities are considered...
8. “What It Is That We Do”: Intimate Edgework
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SM is paradoxical. It is subversive and conformist, liberating and constraining, performative and authentic, and misogynistic and feminist. Most fundamentally, though, it is about intimacy. Through play SM participants construct deep feelings of intimate connection. Because it challenges our assumptions about intimacy, its examination contributes to theorizing intimacy on a broader level: what we mean when we call an experience intimate, and in what processes we engage in order to achieve and construct it. ...
Concluding Notes: Erotic Subjectivity and the Construction of the Field
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The postmodern view of ethnography as a jointly constructed narrative, rather than an accurate objective depiction of social reality, has gained support in recent years. Despite increasing crossover between the two, questions concerning the role of the ethnographer remain unsettled. In the field and in her writing, what the ethnographer “does” with her feelings, her presence, her narrative, her voice, her body, and her sexuality is a matter of interest for ethnographers across disciplines and...
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Page Count: 244
Publication Year: 2011