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Conflicting Visions: SM, Feminism, and the Law.

A Problem of Representation

Terry Hoople

Ph.D. Candidate-HumanitiesDoctoral Program

Concordia University

Abstract - In this article, the author examines the problem of representingSM

practice and practitioners.In particularthe author is criticalof the tendency to
dismiss SM practitioners'self-representationsas inadequate accounts because
they are either symptomatic of their perversion or are simply indicators of
practioners'internalizationof patriarchalvalues and ideology, suggesting that
an adequate analysis of SM can only be rendered by nonpractitioners. In
conjunction with an analysis of a British House of Lords decision which upheld
the convictions of SM practitionersfor assault (R. v. Brown), and several
feminist critiques of SM practice, the author attempts to demonstrate that
nonpractitioners' representations of SM are themselves inadequate accounts
insofar as they generally rely on the deployment of cultural stereotypes of "the
sadomasochist," or reflect cultural biases againstritualpractices which involve
the use of violence and pain. Proposing these as impediments to "seeing SM
differently," the author constructs a conflicting vision of the aims and form of
SM practice and relations.

Risumi - Dans son article, l'auteur examine le problme que pose la

reprisentationdes pratiques sadomasochistes et de ses adeptes. II y critique la
tendance qu'ont les non-initiis b faire fi des arguments des adeptes, estimant
que ces arguments sont biaisispuisqu'ils sont le sympt6me de leur perversion ou
l'expression des valeurs et de l'id~ologie patriarcales.Pour les non-initiis, la
seule analyse valable est la leur. Analysant une dicision rendue par la House of
Lords ayant maintenu le verdict de culpabilitj d'adeptes de pratiques
sadomasochistes accusis des voies de fait (R. c. Brown) ainsi que certaines
critiques concernant les pratiques sadomasochistes adresses par des
fiministes, l'auteur dimontre que la conception qu'ont les non-initiis des
pratiques sadomasochistes n'est pas plus reprisentative de la rialiti en ce
qu'elle repose giniralementsur des stiriotypes culturels ou reflkte des prijugis
concernant les pratiques rituelles impliquant l'usage de la violence. Selon
l'auteur, ces prijugis sont davantage des raisons d'envisager les pratiques
sadomasochistes diffiremment; il propose donc dans son article une
interpritationdivergente des pratiques et des relationssadomasochistes.

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"Struggles over what will count as rational accounts of the world

are struggles over how to see." (Donna Haraway)

In an issue of the journal New Formations entitled "Perversity," Beverly Brown

begins her article by stating:

This paper is about how the law sees. When law looks at bodily
representations-written, visual or performed, whether generically constituted
as art or pornography or advertising-what is the grid that "recognizes" some
representations as obscene and others not? Law's vision in these matters, as
[in] so many matters, is focused on problems. Law is on the lookout for
trouble; it is concerned with things that can go wrong. So thefirst issue here is
what counts as a problem in law's eyes. I

This paper is also about what the law "sees" as a problem, and how this
"vision" is prejudiced to see certain types of behaviors and their representations
as potentially harmful, and thus to be proscribed through legislative, judicial, or
other means. More specifically, this paper is about how SM constitutes a
"problem in law's eyes," and, moreover, how SM constitutes a problem within
the law, insofar as contemporary SM practice problematizes the law's ability to
recognize trouble when it "sees" it; that is, my analysis of the law from an SM
perspective will propose that the law is predisposed to see trouble where there is
Of course, "the law" is composed of two elements: words, collocated into
descriptions, definitions, guidelines, rules, etc.; and people, charged with
writing, applying, enforcing and, most importantly, interpreting written law.
When Beverly Brown asks what "grid" recognizes some representations as
obscene and others as not, she is refering to the interpretive structure that is
applied by the law (in the second sense) in the analysis of suspect
representations. This interpretive structure is rarely, if ever, fully articulated in
the law (in the first sense), though of course a certain degree of interpretive
flexibility is necessary insofar as general rules cannot fully comprehend specific
As interpretation is surely nine-tenths of the law, judicial interpretation is
both an important and necessary aspect of the law. But the interpretive grids or
paradigms which judges apply during analysis change according to shifts in
variables such as community standards of tolerance, legal precedent, etc.,

I. Beverley Brown, "Troubled Vision: Legal Understandings of Obscenity" (1993) 10

New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 29 at 29.

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sometimes even expanding to incorporate new data or anomalous behaviors not

previously judged before the law. This is the case in the two decisions I will
briefly analyze in this paper. In the first, a British House of Lords decision, R. v.
Brown,2 the House expanded its interpretation of assault laws (or, from another
perspective, narrowed its interpretation of what constitutes a legal assault) to
specifically cite "sado-masochistic activities" as constituting an unlawful
assault. In the second, a Canadian Supreme Court decision, R. v. Butler,3 the
Court rejected the interpretive grid based on moral disapprobation previously
used to analyze representational materials for obscenity and installed a new
interpretive grid based on the analysis of harm and equality.
Although the various sections of this paper may seem rather loosely linked
at first glance, each section interrogates a different aspect of the problem of
representation, particularly the problematics that arise when attempting to
represent SM, and the problematics of "self'-representation that are intertwined
with them. SM practitioners, or "sadomasochists," some would seem to be
arguing, are persons who must be represented because, as we shall see the
argument goes, SM practitioners' self-representations are not adequate because
they are either under the control of a perverted and depraved desire, or they have
internalized and thus merely express or "replicate" patriarchal values; in either
case their self-representations betray a sort of "false consciousness" or are
symptomatic and thus do not represent the "truth" about SM. Sadomasochism
has become the site of a conflict over authority, and I would argue that this
conflict is not merely or even primarily a battle over what constitutes appropriate
behavior, but first and foremost a conflict over representations, specifically who
will be granted the authority to represent SM. The consequences of this conflict
have been quite serious. In England, recently people have gone to jail and others
have lost their jobs. Some have found it necessary to hide their "proclivities"
from their partners or spouses and lead a "secret life," and relationships have
broken down once the truth was out. Representations of SM practice and
fantasies have been judged obscene by the courts (see my discussion of Butler
and its impact below). Just this morning, I received word on the internet that a
child protection agency took a New York couple's children into custody after
being pressured by a policeman who came across a videotape of the couple
engaging in SM activities (apparently the tape was stolen by an ex-friend with a
grudge and handed over to the police--circumstances eerily similar to those of
Brown, as we shall see in a moment), and I expect that all practitioners with
children live in fear of having social service or child protection agents knock at
their door. And, ironically, practitioners are forced to suffer the weight of
cultural representations (and not just "popular representations") of "the
sadomasochist" as sexually perverted, morally depraved, physically and

2. (1993) 2 W.L.R. 557 [hereinafter Brown].

3. (1992) 89 DLR (4th) [hereinafter Butler].

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mentally abusive, obsessed with power, fascistic, racist, paedophilic ... in

general very scary people to be around. Telling "vanilla" friends, or even your
own parents, that you are a sadomasochist is not only difficult, it is simply
unwise: there is too much to lose and nothing to gain by letting the word out.
Yet, some SM practitioners have put their careers, their personal safety, and
perhaps even their freedom on the line in order to come out, to representing
themselves publicly. It was suggested to me by at least one of the journal's
reviewers that coming out in this paper might have repercussions, and that I
should consider the matter thoroughly. So, upon that seemingly sound advice, I
will bracket that possibility and simply reiterate: the conflict over the authority
to represent SM has had, and no doubt will continue to have, dire consequences.
If I am entering the conflict here, it is because I think that it is necessary for SM
practitioners to represent themselves, and in more complex ways than has
generally been the case, despite the consequences. This paper is not a defense of
sexual libertarianism nor, at least primarily, a defense of the right to free speech.
If it is a defense at all, it is a defense of the will to self-represent.

Seeing Trouble: The Stereotype of "The Sadomasochist" 4 in R. v. Brown

In March of 1992, the British House of Lords heard an appeal by five gay
male "sadomasochists" charged under sections 20 and 47 of the Offenses
Against the Person Act 1861. The point of law "of general public importance"
considered by the Lords was: "Where A wounds or assaults B occasioning him
actual bodily harm in the course of a sadomasochistic encounter, does the
prosecution have to prove lack of consent on the part of B before they can
establish A's guilt under section 20 or section 47 of the Offenses against the
Person Act 1861?"5 In a split (three-to-two) decision, the Lords upheld the
original conviction arguing, as Lord Jauncey puts it, that "it would not be in the
public interest that deliberate infliction of actual bodily harm during the course
of homosexual sado-masochistic activities should be held to be lawful."' 6 There
were no complaining victims; the men were charged solely on the basis of what
was "seen" in a number of videotapes which were discovered by the 7police by
"coincidence" during an unspecified "investigation into other matters."

4. In this paper I will use the notation "SM" and the term "sadomasochism"
interchangeably, but would propose that they are not entirely commensurable. My
primary argument in this paper is that in both popular discourse and in the law, the
term "sadomasochism" ("sado-masochism," "sadomasochist," etc.) generally refers
to a stereotype that is not commensurable with contemporary SM practice (or
practitioners). I will use them in order to emphasize this tension.
5. Brown, supra note 2 at 559.
6. Ibid. at 574.
7. Ibid. at 566.

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In order to justify the Court's rejection of the defence's appeal that lack of
consent should be what distinguishes lawful consensual sadomasochistic
activities from unlawful assault, and their authoritative opinion that it is the
obligation of the Crown, and not merely the right of the Crown, to intervene in
the private relations 8 of consenting adults who engage in sadomasochistic
behavior even if there are no complaining victims, Lord Templeman argued,
without explicit justification, that the consent of the "victims" on whose behalf
the Crown was interfering was either "dubious or worthless." 9 Lord Lowry,
offering one possible reason why the Lords were justified in perceiving the
consent of the victims to be worthless by differentiating between "restraint of a
lawful activity" and the "refusal to relax existing prohibitions," argued that (in
his opinion) "there is no legal right to cause actual bodily harm in the course of
sado-masochistic activity."' 0 Thus it follows that, as one cannot consent to an
unlawful activity, the "victims"' consent was worthless. But something is wrong
with the reasoning here. Surely, it was the Lords who decided this, insofar as
they recognized that there is a legal right to consent to the causing of actual
bodily harm in the course of the several types of assaults considered as lawful
exceptions (surgery, ritual circumcision, tattooing, ear-piercing, parental
chastisement, and violent sports including boxing), and "sado-masochistic
activities" had not been specifically mentioned as problematic in previous case
law. Thus, as Bill Thompson points out, SM "was neither an exception nor an
assault before the Spanner judgement."I l Indeed, as the split decision indicates,
the case could easily have been decided in favor of the appellants, thus
recognizing a legal right to cause injury in the course of (consensual) sado-
masochistic activity, whether conceived of as a relaxation of existing
prohibitions or not. Lord Lowry's argument aside, Lord Templeman himself
gave no indication that he considers the consent of the "victims" of sado-
masochistic activities to be dubious or worthless because one cannot consent to
an unlawful assault. In his dissenting opinion, Lord Slynn observed that the

8. However, there is, according to both British and Canadian law, a "public" aspect to
the case. As the men were engaged in "homosexual" as well as "sadomasochistic"
activities, it was illegal for them to engage in homosexual activities with more than
two persons present (under the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act in Britain. However, it
would appear that charges under this Act were time-barred). The fact that there
were more than two persons present also rendered their activities "indecent," and
thus the men were also charged with either maintaining or aiding and abetting a
disorderly house (or common bawdy house in Canada), a disorderly house
constituting a "public" place.
9. Brown, supra note 2 at 564.
10. Ibid. at 583.
11. Bell Thompson, Sadomasochism: Painful Perversion or Pleasurable Play?
(London: Cassell, 1994) at 5. The original police investigation was code-named
"Operation Spanner," thus the reference to the "Spanner decision."

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"facts mentioned in the papers before the House" would make most people feel
"revulsion and bewilderment that anyone (in this case men, in other cases
mutatis mutandis, men and women or women) should wish to do or to have done
to him or her the acts so revealed." '2 It seems clear that the Lords, particularly
the majority Lords, shared "most people's" revulsion, but it would also seem that
they were anything but bewildered, and in fact were declaratively sure that they
"knew" why sadomasochists would wish to engage in such repulsive acts. And it
also seems to me that it is in light of this "knowledge"-"knowledge" which I
hope to demonstrate is based on a stereotype rather than a true understanding of
sadomasochism-rather than the prior legality or illegality of the acts, that Lord
Templeman feels the "victims"' consent to be dubious or worthless.
I take my notion of the stereotype from Homi Bhabha, who describes the
stereotype as a discursive construction (that is a rhetorical device) which
engages in a strategy of "individuation and marginalization," and "produces [an]
effect of probabilistic truth and predictability which ... must always be in excess
of what can be empirically proved or logically construed."' 13 In less complex
terms, a stereotype is a commonly-held, oversimplified characterization of an
"other" which is generally accepted as being factually based, but which is based
more upon appearances and the fears, prejudices, and presuppositions of those
deploying the stereotype than on substantive, empirical data. Indeed, this lack of
empirical grounding and the link to prejudices and presuppositions not only
provides the stereotype with a great deal of persuasive power, it also makes
stereotypes highly adaptable and thus easily made to "fit the facts."
Unfortunately for the defendants in Brown, one of the key arguments
presented on their behalf by the defense counsels merely served to lend support
to the Lords' subsequent stereotyping of "the sadomasochist." According to Lord
Templeman, the defense asserted "that the sexual appetites of sadists and
masochists can only be satisfied by the infliction of bodily harm and that the law
should not punish the consensual achievement of sexual satisfaction."1 4 As no
one contested the fact that the appellants intentionally inflicted bodily harm, this
assertion allowed Lord Templeman to point out that, although this "argument
would be acceptable if sado-masochism were only concerned with sex ... sado-

12. Ibid. at 603.

13. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994) at 66.
14. Brown, supra note 2 at 564. The notion that the sexual appetite of persons who
engage in what we might call "sadomasochistic activities" can only be satisfied by
the infliction/reception of bodily injury (specifically flagellation), can be traced
back to the early 17th century. In his treatise on flagellation, De Flagrorum Usu in
Re Veneria & Lumborum Renumque Officio (On the Use of Rods in Venereal
Matters and in the Office of the Loins and Reins), the German doctor Johann
Heinrich Meibom linked the male need to be flagellated in order to achieve erection
and orgasm to impotence and therefore "unmanliness" [see below]. See Ian Gibson,
The English Vice (London: Duckworth, 1978) at 1-12.

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masochism is not only concerned with sex. Sado-masochism is also concerned

with violence." 15 Maintaining this ambivalence was key to the majority Lords'
arguments, insofar as proposing both a distinction and a link between sex and
violence allowed the Lords to criticize SM as both sexually perverse and
injurious. In contrast, the dissenting Lords' arguments split along the
sex/violence divide. Lord Mustill began his dissenting opinion by stating: "My
Lords, this is a case about the criminal law of violence. In my opinion it should
be a case about the criminal law of private sexual relations, if about anything at
all."' 16 Lord Slynn, on the other hand, makes only oblique reference to the
purported sexual nature of sadomasochistic activities in his dissenting opinion
(by suggesting that Parliament could amend the Sexual Offenses Act 1967 to
criminalize sadomasochistic activity if it felt it necessary), and limits his
discussion to the point of law under consideration by the House. However, as
my primary concern here is with the majority Lords' construction of a stereotype
of "the sadomasochist," there is no reason to rehearse the minority Lords'
arguments in detail here.
Returning to the defense strategy, once the defense suggested that sexual
desire and the desire to indulge in cruelty are fused in the sadomasochist such
that their sexual desire can only be satisfied by the infliction of bodily harm, and
given the Lords' evident repugnance for the acts engaged in by the appellants, it
comes as no surprise that Lord Lowry subsequently proposed that
sadomasochists merely "wish to satisfy a perverted and depraved sexual
desire." 17 Here, we have the core of the stereotype of the sadomasochist called
upon by the Lords to justify what Carl Stychin describes as "the creation of a
pathological sado-masochistic identity"1 8 : "the sadomasochist" is sexually
perverted and depraved, and can only satisfy his (uncontrolled) sexual desire
through the infliction/reception of cruelty, pain, and suffering.
As Homi Bhabha points out, stereotypes are always "excessive," thus
negative attributes are easily piled one on top of the other. For example, let me

15. Ibid.
16. Ibid. at 584.
17. Ibid. at 583.
18. Carl Stychin, "Unmanly Diversions: The Construction of the Homosexual Body
(Politic) in English Law" (1995) 32 Osgoode Hall L.J. 503 at 516. Stychin goes on
to say: "which becomes synonymous with the homosexual." Although Stychin's
article and mine link up in many ways, his primary focus is the pathologization of
the homosexual, while mine is the pathologization of the sadomasochist,
homosexual or otherwise. However, I would agree with Stychin that it is difficult, if
not impossible, to separate the two in relation to Brown, thus this separation is
rhetorical rather than substantive. I do not mean to marginalize the role that the
Lords' "revulsion" at homosexuality played in the construction of the stereotype I
am articulating here, but would direct the reader to Stychin's article to fill in the
gaps left by my focus on sadomasochism.

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reiterate Lord Templeman's observation that the consents of the "victims" were
dubious and worthless in the context in which they were stated, marking that this
statement directly follows his statements quoted above proposing that
sadomasochism is concerned with both sex with violence: "The evidence
discloses that the practices of the appellants were unpredictably dangerous and
degrading to body and mind and were developed with increasing barbarity and
taught to persons whose consents were dubious or worthless."' 19 So, to the
stereotype of "the sadomasochist" as perverted and depraved, Lord Templeman
adds the element of unpredictability (from the proposal that the sadomasochist is
controlled by sexual desire, it follows that he lacks both self-control and control
over the effects of the activities as such), suggests that the sadomasochist's
perverted and depraved desires are progressive in nature and lead to increasingly
severe violent acts, and finally, although he uses the term "taught," implies that
the sadomasochist is a seducer who preys on the innocent, 20 a characterization
also implied by Lord Jauncey when he expresses concern 21
regarding "the
possibility of proselytization and corruption of young men."
Carl Stychin points out that the presumption that sadomasochistic desire is
both uncontrolled and progressive in nature, and thus necessarily leads to acts of
"increasing barbarity," also subtends the majority Lords' characterization of
(homosexual) sadomasochistic behavior as addicting: "Throughout the majority
reasons, the appellants are characterized in terms of their uncontrolled and
unregulated need for sexualized violence. Like other forms of addiction, their
desire for stimulation escalates, which means that the addiction becomes
uncontrollable. Once again, the relationship of free will and compulsion is
paradoxical." ' 2 2 The Lords are not the first to have suggested that
sadomasochism is addictive and therefore compromises the will and the ability
to freely consent. In her introduction to Against Sadomasochism: A Radical
FeministAnalysis, Robin Ruth Lindon cites one of the essays included in the
anthology and argues similarly:

In "Letter From a Former Masochist," Marissa Jonel formulates the idea that
sadomasochism is an addiction. She explains that sadomasochism "is like a
drug-you develop a quick tolerance to the pain." In line with the
normalization of role playing and the rampant abuse of power that she
describes from her own experience, I believe the nature of consent and
negotiation between 23partners in sadomasochistic encounters must be
extremely problematic.

19. Brown, supra note 2 at 654.

20. See also Stychin, supra note 18 at 526-28.
21. Brown, supra note 2 at 574.
22. Stychin, supra note 18 at 521.
23. Robin Ruth Lindon et. al., eds., Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist
Analysis (San Francisco: Frog in the Well, 1882) at 9.

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This "addiction model" of sadomasochistic desire is recapitulated again in

Claudia Card's Lesbian Choices, where it is contrasted with a "compulsion
model" and a "cathartic model."' 24 Qualified "scientific" support for the
"progressive/addictive model" deployed by the Lords and some feminists is also
provided by the American Psychiatric Association which proposes:

Sexual Masochism is usually chronic, and the person tends to repeat the same
masochistic act. Some individuals with Sexual Masochism may engage in
masochistic acts for many years without increasing the potential injuriousness
of their acts. Others, however, increase the severity of the masochistic acts
over time or during periods of stress, which may eventually result in injury or
even death ...
Some individuals with Sexual Sadism may engage in sadistic acts for many
years without a need to increase the potential for inflicting serious physical
damage. Usually, however, the severity of the sadistic acts increases over
time. When Sexual Sadism is severe ... individuals ...
may seriously injure or
kill their victims. 25

I should point out, however, that the clinical criteria for diagnosing both Sexual
Sadism and Masochism requires that "the fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors
cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or
other important areas of functioning." 26 Thus, one presumes that "happy
sadomasochists" would not be considered by the A.P.A. to have a clinical
disorder, so whether the possibility of progression to serious injury or
death/murder would still hold is at least questionable, as these would be
pathological outcomes.
Returning to Brown, Lord Templeman reserves his most excessive,
moralistic pronouncements about the evils of sadomasochism for his final
opinion: "Society is entitled and bound to protect itself against a cult of violence.
Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing. Cruelty is
uncivilized. ' 27 By describing sadomasochism as a "cult," Templeman not only
reintroduces the notion of the seduction of the innocent and naive, he invokes
the apocalyptic nightmare of mesmerizing, satanic "false prophets" (or fascist

24. Claudia Card, Lesbian Choices (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995). See,
in particular, "Social Consequences: Catharsis, Addiction or Harmless
Compulsion" at 231-35. Card argues that both the addiction and cathartic models
(the cathartic model is proposed primarily by supporters of SM, the addiction
model by those critical of SM) signal "underlying social distress" (ibid. at 236),
implying that SM is merely a symptom and that it is the social itself which is
25. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th ed.
(Washington: APA, 1995) at 529-30.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid. at 566.

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leaders) who lead the unwary along the path of death and destruction, recalling
the initial stages of "Operation Spanner" where the police dug up the appellants'
back yards looking for dead bodies, sure that the videotapes they had come upon
were made by a "dangerous international-satanic-ritual-child-abusing-snuff-
movie-making gang." 28 But sadomasochism is no regular cult, that is one in
which the members are held in thrall by a charismatic leader according to a
fascistic model. No, sadomasochists are indeed "led," but not by a person, at
least according to Lord Lowry's dubious and completely unsupported claim that
it is "probable" "that some sado-masochistic activity, under the powerful
influence of the sexual instinct, will get out of hand and result in serious physical
damage to the participants." 29 Why is the consent of the "victims" dubious or
worthless? Because their will has been usurped by the powerful sexual instinct
which has rendered them uncivilized and barbaric, caused them to lose control
over themselves and perverted their desires. Although the Lords' description of
"the sadomasochist" is delivered with authority (which of course they are vested
with), the only authorities they would seem to have drawn upon to substantiate
their claims about sadomasochism are their own presuppositions and prejudices.
I would argue that SM practitioners were never really represented in R. v.
Brown. Rather, SM practitioners were represented as a stereotype, as a gross
caricature of a Sadeian libertine, or, perhaps more to the point, as "normal"
society's diabolical "other," as the social's Mr. Hyde, so to speak.

Looking for Trouble: Reprehensible Actions and

Canadian Obscenity Law (R. v. Butler)

At first glance, R. v. Butler would seem to have little to do with SM, or bear any
relation to Brown for that matter. Certainly, Butler avoids much of the moral
disapprobation characteristic of Brown (and, indeed, the Court intended to mark
a shift from an analysis of potentially obscene representations based on moral
disapprobation to an analysis based on harm). However, I will argue that the
wording of Butler is likely to predispose any judge who followed its precedents
to see all but the most innocuous forms of SM imagery as obscene. Although,
given Butler's emphasis on harm toward women, such a judge would be
particularly so predisposed if the image depicted a male "top" (Master,
dominant, sadist, etc.) and a female "bottom" (slave, submissive, masochist,
etc.), there is sufficient indication in the wording of Butler that male/male and
female/female images would be (and indeed have been-see below) found
obscene as well. Moreover, this predisposition would be further exacerbated if
the judge was also predisposed to view SM practice in the stereotypical way the

28. Thompson, supra note II at 2.

29. Brown, supra note 2 at 583 [emphasis added].

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Lords in Brown did. And, despite the fact that Butler never names SM as such, it
does provide sufficient justification for "seeing" SM representations as fitting,
and thus supporting the stereotype outlined above, as I hope will become clear.
Reflecting on the definition of obscenity found in section 163(8) of the
Criminal Code, the Court distinguished between obscenity and pornography
according to three categories of materials, materials which exhibit:
a) explicit sex with violence, which generally constitutes "undue
exploitation of sex" within the meaning of s. 163(8) of the Code, on the
basis of demonstrable harm;
b) explicit sex that is degrading and dehumanizing, which will be "undue
exploitation of sex" if it creates a substantial risk of harm; the risk of
harm can be assessed with reference to the tolerance of the community,
under the "community standard of tolerance" test; and
c) explicit sex without violence that is neither degrading nor
dehumanizing, which will not generally fall under s. 163(8) of the
Code 30

Although these definitional categories seem relatively clear and

straightforward, the Court at no point defines what it means by "explicit sex" or
"violence," thus seeming to rely on common-sense definitions. However, what
the Court specifically means by "explicit sex" is of particular importance to SM
practitioners. Linda Williams, in a different context, speaks of "acts [which] do
not necessarily depict the sexual organs and genital actions" which might
nonetheless be deemed obscene, and asks: "In what precise sense, for example,
is flagellation obscene?" 3' Well if, as was the case in Brown, one presumes that
SM practitioners can only satisfy their sexual desires through the infliction of
bodily harm, then flagellation in an SM context would constitute sex with
violence and thus its explicit representation would be obscene given Butler's
criterion, whether sexual organs or genital actions are depicted or not.
But the representation of SM practice would necessarily fall under category
(b) as well. Although the Court does not define "explicit sex," it does attempt to
define what it means by "degrading and dehumanizing." First, Justice Sopinka
quotes from R. v. Ramsingh: "They [women] are exploited, portrayed as desiring
pleasure from pain, by being humiliated and treated only as an object of male
domination sexually, or in cruel or violent bondage." 32 He goes on to add:

30. Butler, supra note 3 at 492.

31. Linda Williams, "Second Thoughts on Hard Core: American Obscenity Law and
the Scapegoating of Deviance" in Pamela Church Gibson & Roma Gibson, eds.,
Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography,Power (London: BFI, 1993) 46 at 50. Williams
was commenting on the United States Supreme Court's Miller Test For Obscenity.
32. Butler, supranote 3 at 466.

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Among other things, degrading or dehumanizing materials place women (and

sometimes men) in positions of subordination, servile submission or
humiliation ...In the appreciation of whether material is degrading or
dehumanizing, the appearance of consent is not necessarily determinative.
Consent cannot save materials that otherwise contain degrading or
dehumanizing scenes. Sometimes the very appearance of consent makes the
depicted acts even more degrading and dehumanizing. 33

Shades of Brown? The rejection of the consent defense here seems

somewhat fortuitous, though it is possible that the Court is simply recognizing
that in the case of assessing representations rather than "real world" situations,
the appearanceof consent cannot be distinguished from actual consent. That is,
even if the person appearing to consent was to appear in court to testify that he
or she actually consented, there is still no way to be absolutely sure that s/he was
not and is still not being coerced in some way, a problematic often highlighted in
cases of spousal abuse or battery. This signals a very serious problem at the core
of the consent defense: consent is completely context-dependent (in an
immediate sense), and thus it is never possible to verify that consent was granted
without coercion, which accounts for the ease with which it is deemed dubious
or worthless. However, this is somewhat tangential to my immediate concerns.
You will recall that in Brown Lord Templeman described the "practices of the
appellants" as "degrading to body and mind." Given their Canadian colleagues'
definition of "degrading and dehumanizing treatment," it would seem that
Canadian justices would probably agree.
But my primary concern regarding the potential implications of Butler is
intimated in Justice Gonthier's characterization of what obscene materials

Obscene materials ...convey a distorted image of human sexuality, by making

public and open elements of human nature that are usually hidden behind a
veil of modesty and privacy ... This distorted image of human sexuality often
comprises violence, cruelty, infliction of pain, humiliation, among other
elements of the pornographic imagery. Not only are these materials often
evidence of the commission of reprehensible actions in their making, but their
representation conjures the 34possibility of behavioral influences ...
may lead to abuse and harm.

Gonthier is only articulating what would seem to go without saying: namely,

that if representations are judged obscene, then the behavior represented in
obscene materials would almost surely be reprehensible and thus potentially
subject to prosecution. What I also find rather startling about this passage is
Gonthier's reference to "elements of human nature that are usually hidden

33. Ibid. at 466-67.

34. Butler, supra note 3 at 490-91.

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behind a veil of modesty and privacy." I am not sure that it is this "veiling" that
Pierre Trudeau had in mind when he suggested that the state had no business in
the bedrooms of the nation, but I find this particular notion of a "cover-up" quite
disturbing. And I don't understand how making "public and open elements of
human nature" would serve to distort them, except in the sense that dominant
cultural codes will be applied to provide these elements with meaning, as
mentioned above. However, I do not think that this is the type of distortion
Gonthier is talking about. Unfortunately, I am really not sure what Gonthier is
trying to suggest in this passage, although it sounds suspiciously like he is
suggesting that no matter what forms of violence, cruelty, infliction of pain, and
humiliation take place behind this veil of modesty and privacy, it is no business
of the Court until it is made public and open, and, moreover, such things are
merely aspects of "human nature," a nature that "civilized men" alienate
themselves from and control, at least in public.
Given that SM practitioners have often deployed libertarian arguments
related to the right to privacy in order to defend their practice, the reader might
expect that I would agree with Gonthier here. On the contrary. I would argue
that many, if not most practitioners would be happy to be public and open about
their practice (and many are) if they were not "forced" to-and I do not think
"hide behind a veil" is the appropriate image here, but rather-"stay in the
closet" because when they are public and open about their practice their "image"
is distorted by those who feel they are only concerned with satisfying a
perverted and depraved sexual desire (or are misogynistic and/or anti-feminist,
racist, fascistic, etc.).
However, as already mentioned, what is even more concerning from the
standpoint of SM practitioners is Gonthier's reference to "the commission of
reprehensible actions" in the making of "pornographic imagery." Bill Thompson
quotes an article in the August 1991 edition of Police Review which he attributes
to Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications squad:

Actors in hard-pornography videos have become police targets following

Operation Spanner, which netted more than a dozen homosexual sado-
masochists. A successful identification could lead to assault charges, based on
the evidence of the video itself. 35

With this in mind, Justice Gonthier's reference to "the commission of

reprehensible actions" would seem to provide sufficient legal precedent for a
police crusade to "net" sadomasochists, similar to the one initiated by Scotland
Yard, inspired by Brown.3 6 I do not mean to equate Brown and Butler, but if a

35. Thompson, supra note 11 at 257. Thompson does not provide any further
publishing information.
36. An anonymous reviewer of an earlier draft of this paper commented that "while
people may be "liable" to prosecution [as a result of Brown], no one (as far as we

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representation is deemed obscene and the behavior thus represented deemed

reprehensible, then a Canadian version of "Operation Spanner" is not only
possible; it seems likely, particularly if, contrary to the spirit of Butler, moral
intolerance once again becomes the "community standard."

(In)Visibility and Voice: The Problem of Representation

The previous analyses of Brown and Butler suggest the "problem" with SM may
not be a problem of behaviors so much as a problem of representation. That is,
how SM practitioners "see" and represent themselves and their practice often
conflicts with how others "see" them, and thus there is a struggle over how to
represent SM, a struggle with potentially dire consequences for practitioners. In
this section, I want to approach this problem of representing SM from a slightly
different perspective by tracing how the problematics of representing SM and
other behaviors which do not fit into the mold of "normal" behavior are both
manifestly and latently articulated or performed in an article written by Karen
In this essay, Karen Busby argues in support of both the spirit and the letter
of Butler, but is somewhat less supportive of its subsequent application, which
she describes as "discriminatory." 38 Agreeing with Busby that the spirit of
Butler marks a step in the right direction (though only insofar as Butler steps

know) actually has been prosecuted using the Brown precedent. While this may be
true, Thompson cites several cases where the police raided people's homes and
confiscated materials, despite being unable to charge them with any crime. He also
tells of "acaning devotee [who] lost his teaching post when a video of his bedroom
[presumably shot by the police], highlighting a pair of stocks at the end of the bed
and his cane collection, was shown to his school governors." See ibid. at 256. This
type of harassment is no doubt an equally and perhaps even more effective means
of regulating SM (by sending SM practitioners underground and thus minimizing
the potential for proselytization) as prosecuting practitioners. Also, recently
(February 1996), I received this message posted to one of the internet discussion
lists I subscribe to related to SM: "The police in London have been consistently
targeting, using plain-clothes police, and prosecuting sm/fetish venues and
publishing houses for the past 3-4 years [i.e. subsequent to Brown]. Several
publishing houses have been forced out of business, and a whole heap of magazines
have been declared obscene." The poster (whose anonymity I choose to protect)
also points out that most of the harassment has been directed toward heterosexual
SM clubs and magazines, though his message was in response to a previous
message describing the harassment of a gay club which hosted what we in Canada
would call a "Fetish Night" once a week, resulting in the club banning the SM
group which hosted the fetish night
37. Karen Busby, "LEAF and Pornography: Litigating on Equality and Sexual
Representations" (1994) 9:1 Can J.L. & S.165.
38. Ibid at 184.

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away from the moral analysis of materials toward a harms-based analysis), I do

not agree that the letter is joined to this spirit, and wonder if the discriminatory
enforcement Busby speaks about is a result of this disjunction. Be that as it may,
to demonstrate this discriminatory enforcement, Busby points out that "since
Butler was released, very few Criminal Code charges have been laid regarding
heterosexual materials," 39 and provides two examples where either gay or
lesbian material was seized by the police and Canada Customs where the
bookstore involved, Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto, was convicted. She
observes that the first piece of "obscene material" seized after Butler was "a
lesbian erotic magazine" called Bad Attitude, and describes the article upon the
basis of which the charge was laid: "a woman [stalks] another woman in 40a
shower, [assaults] her, and then, now with her consent, [has] sex with her."
She then 4suggests that "feminists may disagree on the defensibility of this
material." l
What Busby does not point out in the body of her essay, but intimates in a
previous footnote, is that the articles in Bad Attitude often deal with SM themes
and the magazine also sometimes exhibits SM images. This "marginalization" of
the SM content of Bad Attitude would seem to be accounted for in the footnote,
and as a close analysis of Busby's observations in both the footnote and the
statement which occasioned it will help to articulate the problem of
representation with which I am concerned here, I would like to quote them in
their entirety. The statement reads: "No one can ensure that the sexualized
racism of, for example, gay houseboy scenarios will not be used against men of
colour in a racist culture, or that s/m [her footnote is inserted here], or sexually
violent or submissive materials will not be used against women or gay men in a
misogynist, homophobic culture." 4 2 The footnote reads:

For example, La Presse featured a front-page photograph of lesbian s/m in its

coverage of the 1993 Washington March, thereby reducing the march to kinky
sex. When discussing the police seizure of Bad Attitude from Glad Day
Bookshop with the media, I rarely talk about the magazine's s/m content
because I cannot trust that they will not sensationalize this
aspect of the case,
thereby feeding into stereotypes about lesbian sexuality.

I want to emphasize here that the following analysis of this bit of text
somewhat violently excised from its original context is not intended as a critique
of Busby's defense of Butler, at least not in any direct sense. That being said, it
is ironic that the footnote quoted above is about the problematics involved in

39. Ibid.
40. Ibid. at 185.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid. at 184.
43. Ibid. at note 41.

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shifting representations from one context to another, specifically the problem of

shifting a representation generated from within a marginal (one might even say
deviant) cultural group (lesbian SM practitioners) where it is interpreted
according to the codes specific to that group (playing a bit on Donna Haraway's
phrase, we might call this "situated knowing" 44 ), to the general (or "public")
field of representation where it is interpreted according to dominant cultural
codes (and thus prevailing stereotypes). I say "ironic" not simply because I am
shifting Busby's words from the context of her essay to the context of mine, but
because Busby is doing in her statement what she is critiquing in her footnote,
though the shift is a little more subtle.
I am not completely sure I know what Busby means by "gay houseboy
scenarios" as I have not heard of such "scenarios" specifically, nor is it clear
whether these "scenarios" are merely fictionalizations or fantasies represented in
gay porn, related to existing forms of gay relationships, or both. However, given
that Busby's example would not make any sense unless the "houseboy" was in
some way relationally subservient to his partner, it would seem that a "gay
houseboy relationship" would be analogous to what some gay men describe as
"Daddy/boy" relationships, as well as to SM "Master/slave" or
"Dominant/submissive" relationships. Certainly replacing "gay houseboy
scenarios" with Daddy/boy, Master/slave, or Dominant/submissive scenarios
would not alter the point Busby is trying to make, especially if the
Daddy/Master/dominant was "white" and the Boy/slave/submissive was a "man
of colour." But it could be and has been argued that SM relations as such,
whether interracial or not, presuming that they are based on the eroticization of
dominance and submission, inherently sexualize racism.
When I first read Busby's example, I assumed that the "houseboy" would
have to be a "man of color," but if one interprets Busby as proposing a necessary
relationship between (male) dominance and racism, then SM practitioners could
be seen as embodying the same values as "racist culture," irrespective of the
color of the participants. 45 Approaching "gay houseboy scenarios" from another
perspective, even if such a relationship happened to be interracial, I see no
reason to simply presume that skin color would necessarily have any bearing on
the reasons why two gay men would engage in any of these types of

44. See Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
(New York: Routledge, 1991), and in particular the chapter entitled "Situated
Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial
Perspective" at 183.
45. For two examples where such an argument is made, see Karen Sims, Rose Mason
& Darlene R. Pagano, "Racism and Sadomasochism: A Conversation with Two
Black Lesbians" in Lindon et al., eds., supra note 23, 99; Jamie Lee Evans,
"Rodney King, Racism, and the SM Culture of America" in Irene Reti, ed.,
Unleashing Feminism: Critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in the Gay Nineties
(Santa Cruz: HerBooks, 1993) 74.

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relationships, and I am not convinced by the argument which would suggest that
it is only because institutionalized racism (or systemic inequality) exists that
men desire to engage in such relationships. 46 Nor am I convinced that one is
obliged to perceive such a relationship as "unequal" in the first place, as I will
try to demonstrate later in this paper. More importantly, I do not think that most
gay men or, more specifically, gay male SM practitioners would generally
interpret such a relationship primarily in reference to a racial paradigm. But this
is the problem here. Busby defines such scenarios as "sexualized racism"
without giving the persons who engage in such scenarios a voice. In essence,
Busby is defining such relations for those who engage in them and in doing so
renders them invisible, replacing them with a stereotype. Busby is also shifting
interpretive contexts here, from "gay (SM) culture" to dominant culture, and this
shift is not that different from the shift in context Busby criticizes in her
footnote. That is, no matter how complex the reasons behind each person's desire
to engage in such a relationship, no matter how they "see" the relationship
between themselves or how such relationships are interpreted within the gay
and/or SM community of which they are a part, as soon as this relationship is
represented in dominant "racist culture," it is immediately reducible to
sexualized racism. And, interpreted in relation to dominant cultural codes (that
is, stereotypes), this is certainly what it appearsto be.
Similarly, presuming that a relationship between a male SM "top"
(Master/dominant) and a female "bottom" (Slave/submissive) constitutes an
instance of sexualized misogyny (it is not clear that Busby shares this
presumption) is equally problematic, insofar as it reduces the potentially
complex and varied reasons why each person in the relationship chooses to
engage in such a relationship (some of which I will outline in the next section) to
one. Moreover, as with the example above, such a presumption denies women in
such relationships a voice by interpreting their experience for them, proposing
that they would not "choose" to be in such a relationship if institutionalized
misogyny (that is, patriarchal relations of power) was eradicated, and in essence
reduces them to mere "victims." Thus, once again here, the problem is not
simply one of behavior, but, more importantly, a problem of representation.
Busby recognizes this problem of representation when she mentions her
reluctance to talk about Bad Attitude's SM content to the media for fear that they
will sensationalize it and thus feed into "stereotypes of lesbian sexuality." In an
earlier footnote, she proposes that a definition of SM "would have to consider
the constructed meaning of s/m outside of lesbian (sub) communities."
However, in addition to this meaning constructed "outside" of lesbian

46. As I am not convinced by Claudia Card and other feminists' similar argument that
the existence of SM is merely a symptom signalling underlying social distress. See
supra note 24.
47. Busby, supra note 37 at 181, note 34.

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communities, Busby intimates that there are (at least) two other meanings being
constructed "inside" the lesbian community. Stating that she is risking
oversimplification, she articulates these two constructions thus: "[Slupporters of
s/m believe that its practitioners are sex radicals who disrupt social conventions
or pursue the cutting edge of sexual freedom. Those who critique the practice
see it as modelling or replicating the worst aspects of a sexuality premised on
male dominance and female subordination within a systemically unequal
I want to emphasize that both points of view are constructions, moreover
constructions generated in reference to "social conventions," or what I have
described as dominant cultural codes. This raises an important question: can SM
as a practice only be constructed in reference to dominant cultural codes
according to a model of replication, and are radical disruption (for example
through the proselytization of perversion, which could even be interpreted as
sowing sedition) or replication, the two "extreme" possibilities, the only two
possible relations to "social conventions" open to SM practice? Certainly, the
early "debates" about (primarily lesbian) SM were polarized around the (self)
representation of SM as disruptive and the representation of SM as mere
replication, as Busby intimates. 49 I am going to leave this question aside for the
moment and return to it later in the paper, but wish to emphasize that my
concern here is not whether one construction/representation of SM is "truer"
than another; rather, my concern is how both are constructed in reference to
dominant cultural codes rather than specific types of behavior, and thus I am
concerned about the problem of representation, including, of course, self-
In general, the arguments of many of the feminists' critiques of SM do not
seem to express any "bewilderment" as to why people want to engage in SM, or
perhaps it would be more accurate to say that although some express
bewilderment at the level of desire, few express bewilderment at the causal
level. Risking oversimplification myself, many feminist critiques of SM
propose, to quote Sandra Lee Bartky, that "patriarchy invades the intimate
recesses of personality," 50 "colonizing" our sexuality and sexual imagination
and conditioning "the very structure of desire itself."' 5 1 Although Bartky stops
short of proposing that our sexual desire is completely constrained, she does

48. Ibid. at 180-81.

49. For the beginnings of this debate, see Samois, ed., Coming to Power (Boston:
Alyson, 1982); Lindon et al., eds., supra note 23.
50. Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininityand Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of
Oppression (New York: Routledge, 1990) at 58.
51. Ibid. at 56.
52. Though she does observe: "The idea that sexual desire is a kind of bondage is very
ancient; the notion takes on new meaning in the context of a radical feminist
critique of male supremacy." Ibid. at 50.

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reject SM practitioners' self-representations as inadequate accounts of why they

engage in SM, suggesting that women who eroticize dominance and/or
submission are, in a sense, "dupes" of patriarchal ideology and thus misrepresent
themselves to themselves and therefore are not in a position to objectively
"know" why they have such desires; this "knowledge" only becomes available
through a feminist analysis of general patriarchal relations of power. Thus, it is
implicitly argued, it is necessary that ideologically aware feminists speakfor SM
practitioners in order to demonstrate that they do not really "choose" to be
sadomasochists, despite appearances. But here, once again, SM practitioners are
denied the possibility of (self) representation. Or, rather, by equating all forms of
dominance and submission and subsuming them under a model of patriarchal
oppression, the "political" critique of SM as simply replicating patriarchal
relations of power denies the specificity of the voices of SM practitioners and
the potentially resisting "micro-relations" which, at least in part, guide both
conduct and desire within a local context. Which is not to say that more "macro-
relations" do not impinge upon, or are not intertwined, with local "micro-
relations," whether one is speaking of a practitioner's relation (or lack thereof) to
the larger SM community, or their relation to dominant culture as a whole.
Some time ago Pat Califia observed:

It is difficult to discuss sadomasochism in feminist terms because some of the

slang S/M people use to talk about sexuality has been appropriated by
feminist propagandists. Terms like roles, masochism, bondage, dominance,
and submission have become buzzwords. In a feminist 53
context their meanings
differ sharply from their significance to S/M people.

Setting aside the question as to who, in fact, is doing the (re)appropriating,

Califia outlines the problem of representation I have been trying to articulate
here, specifically the problem of representing difference within a shared
language and culture where struggles over meaning are necessarily played out
against the backdrop of dominant cultural codes, codes which attempt to limit
the play of meaning by subsuming difference in the stereotype. Busby herself
confronts this problem when she talks to the media about the Bad Attitude case
and must decide whether to mention the magazine's SM content or not. But in
Busby's case, "SM" has become the "buzzword" which when mentioned
somehow feeds into stereotypes about lesbian sexuality, so Busby chooses to
render SM invisible, marginalizing it as a problematic aspect of "lesbian
sexuality" that "lesbians need to find safe places and ways to continue talking
about" 54 away from the stereotyping lens of the eye of the media.

53. Pat Califia, Feminism and Sadomasochism, Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex
(Pittsburgh: Cleis, 1994) 165 at 166, first printed in (1981) 12 Heresies 30.
54. Busby, supra note 37 at 181.

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The catch is (and as I will demonstrate in a moment it is a catch-22), I think

it would be safe to assume that lesbian SM practitioners marched in Washington
(as they march in Gay Pride parades all over North America) in part in order to
be visible, to visibly express (to all willing to witness) pride in themselves, their
sexuality, their practice, and even their appearance(in all senses of the term). 55
Bad Attitude also renders lesbian SM "visible," so in a sense Busby is engaging
in a "cover-up" by not mentioning the SM content when she speaks to the media
about the case involving the magazine, particularly as it is the SM content of the
magazine which would seem to account for the reason why it was confiscated
and found obscene rather than a different "lesbian erotic magazine." But there is
a cost to rendering SM visible. Having one's fantasies and images of one's
practice declared obscene is one potential cost of this visibility. Having to
engage in endless, seemingly unresolvable debates regarding the appropriateness
of one's practice is another, as is the risk of having one's practice reduced to
mere kinky sex, eroticized misogyny, or what have you. However, the cost of
not being visible is potentially higher, as any gay or lesbian who has slowly and
painfully crawled out of the closet can attest to.
The catch-22? If SM practitioners, lesbian or otherwise, are denied self-
representation, or if the means of representation are maintained in the control of
others, and the context of representation is always and only "hetero-patriarchal-
racist culture," then it is likely that SM will always be conceived of as merely
kinky sex (or worse) by nonpractitioners, thus it is imperative that SM
practitioners be able to represent themselves. The catch is, once SM practitioners

55. See Lorena Leigh Saxe who, presuming to have demonstrated that sadomasochism
is "antifeminist," argues that although it would be against feminist principles to
exclude sadomasochists (insofar as they are women) from women's events,
specifically the Michigan Women's Music Festival, it would be in accord with
feminist principles to ban sadomasochistic "behavior and dress" (see Lorena Leigh
Saxe, "Sadomasochism and Exclusion" (1992) 7:4 Hypatia 59 at 66). She writes, in
a later footnote, that "Victoria Davion suggested that another reason for banning
s/m behavior and dress at festivals is that s/m dress includes weapons that pose a
threat to both the safety and the sense of safety of attendees. Indeed, rapes and
other attacks do occur at large music festivals, and the presence of weapons
facilitates those attacks and also adds to a climate of fear that many women go to
festivals to escape" (Ibid. at 72, note 9). Here, lesbian sadomasochists are
stereotyped as women who take weapons into women's festivals in order to rape
and attack other women, and more generally as women to be feared by other
women. However, my point here is that Saxe argues that women be excluded from
the festival based on their appearance; that is, sadomasochists can attend the
festivals as long as they do not appear to be sadomasochists. Would wearing a
black leather jacket be sufficient indication of sadomasochistic tendencies, or
would women have to have multiple piercings, be covered in tattoos, wearing
leather pants and jackboots, and be carrying a whip, etc., in order to justify

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do attempt to represent themselves in the general field of representation (the

media and the courts constituting integral parts of this field), they are inserted
into the cultural codes that regulate the production of meaning within that field
and which produce SM as kinky sex (eroticized misogyny, a cult of violence,
etc.) in the first place. Thus, recalling Brown, not only were the Lords unable to
perceive SM as anything but the wish to satisfy a perverted and depraved sexual
desire, the defense counsel deemed it appropriate or necessary to present their
arguments as if this indeed is the case. Similarly, as many people seem unable or
unwilling to recognize that there may be different forms of dominance and
submission, not all of which are founded in oppression, or that there may be
forms of SM where dominance and/or submission play only a minor role in
people's relationships, their criticisms of SM remain focused on forms and
appearances, and they insist on interpreting SM only in reference to dominant
cultural codes and cultural stereotypes. In both instances, the specificity of SM
practitioners' self-representation is discounted in order that the "truth" about
sadomasochism can be told. As both instances of "nonrecognition" are founded
in presuppositions regarding the general nature of sexual desire for the Lords,
and the general nature of patriarchal power for many of the feminists critical of
SM, the anomalous aspects of practitioners' self-representations are easily
recuperated as merely indications of their perversion or their inculcation into
patriarchal ideology.
I would like to be as clear as possible here, though in this instance clarity
will necessarily result in oversimplification, and oversimplification is at the core
of the problem I am trying to articulate. When the analysis of SM practice
begins with the presumption that practitioners are perverted and depraved or, on
the other hand, that SM merely replicates "the worst aspects of a sexuality
premised on male dominance and female subordination," then SM practice
appears to fit the paradigm, and anomalies are not perceived as contradicting the
founding presumption, but rather as further evidential support for it, that is, as
easily accounted for, self-mis-representations. Ironically, SM practitioners
become powerless to represent themselves, their representations rejected as
inadequate accounts of their own experience, or as misguided or perverse
attempts to construct an apologetics for SM behavior. But it is the very visibility
of SM, the insistence of SM practitioners to represent themselves in their
specificity, that subverts the categories in relation to which the "grand theories"
of SM are constructed and which suggests that there is more to SM than "meets
the eye." Busby argues that a photograph representing lesbian SM reproduced on
the front page of a newspaper and linked to the Washington March reduces
homosexuality to kinky sex. Perhaps. But featuring a photograph of lesbian SM
on the front page of a newspaper also renders lesbian SM visible, and the
complex processes of identification and dis-identification that are engaged when
one "sees" representations of lesbian SM belies the apparent reduction of SM (or
homosexuality) to kinky sex. Representations are never "explicit" enough to

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ward-off "atypical" responses. More to the point, when Busby decides not to talk
about the SM content of Bad Attitude to the media because she does not want to
feed into stereotypes about lesbian sexuality, she (inadvertently perhaps) feeds
into stereotypes about SM, specifically that SM is inappropriate behavior and
thus not an aspect of lesbian sexuality that should be defended, stereotypes be
damned. What I am trying to emphasize here is that it is simply not possible to
represent SM, or lesbian sexuality for that matter, without necessarily feeding
into stereotypes, as stereotypes regulate meaning in dominant discourses and are
thus turned to in order to ease bewilderment and make sense of (sub)cultural
practices that deviate from the norm. On the other hand, dominant cultural codes
cannot fully regulate the production of meaning, otherwise a feminist politics
would be doomed from the start as resistance would be futile.
I do not mean to dismiss Busby's legitimate concerns and completely agree
that we can't be sure that gay houseboy scenarios will not be used against men of
colour in a racist, homophobic culture, or that SM material will not be used
against women in a misogynistic, homophobic culture. However, I am sure that
gay houseboy scenarios have been used against men who engage in such
scenarios (indeed, Busby does exactly that), and I am sure that SM materials
have been used against SM practitioners, Brown being a case in point. Further,
all of these "uses" of "material" depend on the production and maintenance of
the very cultural stereotypes which ensure that such materials will continue to be
"put to use" in this way.

Scotomatic Paradigms: Two Impediments to "Seeing" SM Differently

Perhaps I can begin to tie together the various concerns of this paper by asking
an important question suggested by Busby when she proposes that "lesbians
need to talk about s/m in more detail, including whether and how to make
equality arguments specific to s/m and sexual minorities." 56 The question is,
what would be the appropriate criteria to apply to the analysis of SM
relationships (and their representation) if we were truly "willing to ground [our]
analysis on equality principles"? 57 Of course, responding to this question
requires that "we" agree on what is meant by "equality principles," and "harm."
For example, in an attempt to establish equality principles, is it sufficient to refer
to the categories typically cited in such analyses, such as race, sex, class, pay,
etc.? I am not trying to suggest that such categories are not or should not be
important reference points in an equality analysis, but simply wonder whether
there are other factors or categories that an equality analysis of personal
relationships should take into consideration as well, such as equal access to
enjoyment, whether each person in the relationship is equally happy, etc.?

56. Busby, supra note 37 at 183.

57. Ibid. at 184.

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Obviously, such things are more fluid, context-dependent, and less easily
quantified (but we are talking about e-quality here, are we not?) than general
categories such as race, sex, etc., and ultimately it may even be necessary to
simply accept people's word regarding such matters, accept their "self-
representation," so to speak. Unfortunately, accepting SM practitioners' word or
self-representation seems to be as problematic as accepting their behavior,
particularly if one presupposes that these self-representations merely indicate
how deeply SM practitioners have internalized patriarchal ideology.
Before attempting to "see" SM differently, I want to recapitulate two
impediments outlined or intimated in my preceding analysis. First, it is generally
presumed that all relations based on dominance and submission are inherently
unequal and at some, perhaps unconscious, level, coercive, whether the overall
"coercive agent" is perceived to be the powerful sexual instinct, "the
patriarchy," or simply those who dominate, and it is this presumption which
leads to the rejection of SM practitioners' ability to adequately represent
themselves. Secondly, it is also generally presumed that the motivations behind
SM are sexual, or that SM is something people engage in because it is the only
way they can achieve sexual satisfaction. And, of course, sexual satisfaction
here is linked to the desire to inflict/receive cruelty, suffering, pain, etc., and
thus there is perceived to be an essential link between sex, violence and coercion
characteristic of SM.
Sandra Lee Bartky articulates the first impediment to thinking SM
differently when she states: "If any form of sexuality has a prima facie claim to
be regarded as politically incorrect, it would surely be sadomasochism. I define
sadomasochism as any sexual practice that involves the eroticization of relations
of domination and submission." 58 By describing it as "politically incorrect,"
Bartky is proposing that SM "desire is wildly at variance with feminist
principles." 59 Bartky's "political" critique implies that the terms "domination"
and "submission" signify a binary, hierarchical, and unidirectional relation of
power, and suggests a fixity to SM relations where a "powerful," active top ("S,"
Master, sadist, etc.) always dominates a "powerless," passive bottom ("M,"
slave, masochist, etc.) who always submits. Although such fixity may be
characteristic of some SM relations, many practitioners describe themselves as
"switches," which simply means that they play both the role of top and of
bottom depending on the context (generally as decided through negotiations with
their partner(s)). Further, some SM practitioners argue that neither dominance
nor submission play a significant role in their relations, describing their practice
as "pure SM." 6 One such practitioner describes "pure SM" as "sensation play ...

58. Bartky, supra note 50 at 46.

59. Ibid.
60. 1 should point out here that the notation "SM" as used in this paper umbrellas
several distinguishable types of relations, "sadomasochistic" being but one type. On

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void of d/s [dominance and submission] context-two people without a power-

differential, one of whom is whomping the tar out of the other." Another
states: "Most of my play is pure SM; there is no "power exchange." We are
simply two (or more) people doing what we mutually like, and while my partner
(top) may be nominally directing the details of the activity, sie has no more say
over what happens than I do."
I find the claim that two people could engage in a relationship without any
sort of power-differential or without exchanging power at some level to be
dubious, and thus would argue that, even if only in a "weak" sense, dominance
and submission play a role in every relationship (SM or otherwise), adding the
caveat that dominance and submission do not necessarily equal oppression. This
quibble aside, the point these practitioners are trying to make is that. for many
SMers, dominance and submission play only a minor role in their relationships,
and certainly do not define them.
On the other hand, if relations of dominance and submission are not
necessarily relations of oppression, what, exactly, is inherently wrong with
relations of dominance and submission, and why are such relations presumed to
be necessarily unequal? Many feminists critical of SM practice call upon the
model of patriarchal oppression and try to force SM into this model, a force-fit
facilitated by the argument that sadomasochistic desire, particularly submissive
or masochistic desire, is merely an effect or symptom of patriarchal oppression
and that no one would "really" desire to be submissive if they had not already
internalized patriarchal ideology. But there are other models of dominance and

the internet mailing lists I subscribe to, dedicated to the discussion of SM, the use
of the acronym "bdsm" has come into vogue. "Bdsm" both distinguishes and marks
an affiliation between four separate types of relations: relations based on bondage
and discipline (bd); relations based on dominance and submission (ds);
Master/slave relations (ms); and "sadomasochistic" relations (sm). A particular
"SM" relationship may be based primarily on only one of these types of relations,
or may be a mix or hybrid. Moreover, I do not think that these four categories can
adequately encompass the large variety of possible forms of relationships that one
might affiliate as "SM relationships." However, I do not have time here to fully
articulate the nature of this affiliation, though I will suggest below that the
affiliation is largely structural. I have chosen to use "SM" rather than "bdsm"
simply because most readers will be already familiar with it and thus it probably
already calls various stereotypes to mind.
61. This is a quotation from a message posted to one of two internet mailing lists
dedicated to the discussion of SM I subscribe to, and for a number of reasons I
choose to protect the identity of this and other posters I will quote, and the lists. All
quotations used in this paper that are taken from the internet will be prefaced by
phrases such as "one practitioner says," etc.
62. This is a gender-neutral pronoun used extensively on the internet. Its genitive
correlate is "hir." I will use these pronouns throughout the remainder of this paper
whenever it is appropriate to do so.

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SM, Feminism, and the Law/Hoople

submission available which I would argue could be more appropriately applied

to the analysis of SM relations, for example the relations between parent and
child, teacher and student, master and apprentice, etc. Of course, we do not
ordinarily think of such relations as relations of dominance and submission, but
nevertheless, I would argue that there is an element of dominance and
submission inherent in each of them to various degrees. Perhaps more
importantly, we do not ordinarily think of these relations as "unequal" in the
same sense as when we speak about "systemic inequality." Although a parent
"dominates" hir child throughout much of the child's early life (and sometimes
even longer), and if the child fails to "submit" sie is "punished" (sometimes
corporeally, 63 sometimes through restraint -sending them to their rooms, etc.),
we do not generally think of the child as "oppressed," nor do we think of the
child as necessarily "powerless." Indeed, parental dominance (ideally at least) is
exercised with the intent of empowering the child by teaching the child
discipline, appropriate social behavior, self-confidence, etc. Why, then, are SM
relations not seen as analogous to the Parent/child relationship, or the
Master/apprentice relationship, rather than with patriarchal oppression?
Let me set that question aside for a moment and turn to the second
impediment to thinking SM differently, the presumption that the motivations
guiding SM practice are always sexual, and thus that SM is always necessarily
an aspect of one's "sexuality." I have no doubt that a great number of
practitioners themselves share this presumption, but at least some practitioners
separate their sexual practices from their SM practices, as indicated by one
practitioner who states:

My partner/lover and I do SM/BD with each other as well as have sex.

Sometimes we do one without the other or both together. We are both of the
opinion that if we had to give up either SM/BD or sex, we would both rather
give up sex intercourse ... We both do SM/BD with other people ... However,
we do not have sex with anyone else ... We can separate SM/BD from sex
intercourse, or not, as it pleases us.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that, although deriving sexual pleasure (in
the sense that the primary aim is to achieve or facilitate genital orgasm) may be
the primary concern of some, contemporary SM practitioners can no longer be
described as persons who only become sexually aroused when
inflicting/receiving pain and suffering as argued by the defense counsel in
Brown, nor even as people who necessarily become sexually aroused at all when
inflicting or receiving pain and suffering, dominating or submitting, in bondage,
etc., as is commonly believed.

63. Incidentally, parental chastisement was cited by the Lords in Brown as one of the
forms of assault legitimately excepted from prosecution (and of course parents do
not generally seek their child's consent).

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If contemporary SM practice cannot be defined simply as the eroticization

of dominance and submission, and if the motivations and aims of SM
practitioners are not always or necessarily sexual, what is contemporary SM all
about? First of all, I am not sure that this is a legitimate question given that SM
is not a homogeneous practice, and thus any ontology of SM is going to be
problematic and necessarily oversimplified. The relations between the various
practices conventionally linked under the acronym "SM"' 64 are often tenuous,
and there are regular debates amongst practitioners regarding the distinctions
between "tops," "dominants," and "Masters," sm ("sadomasochism") and d/s
(dominance and submission), etc. Nevertheless, I think some generalizations can
be proposed regarding the links between the various practices conventionally
(that is, in accord with the conventions of the SM community) associated as SM
In his book, On the Safe Edge: A Manual for SM Play, Trevor Jacques
includes three pages of aphoristic definitions of SM, my personal candidate for
most pithy being: "SM is dragging yourself to the gym, even though you
desperately don't want to go." 65 In addition to proposing that SM is recognizing
that some of the things you don't want to do you do want to do, Jacques'
aphorism also suggests that SM is not only concerned with the extreme and
sensational, but also with the quotidian and mundane. There are a number of
other aspects of SM practice that can be extrapolated from Jacques' aphorism:
SM is an exercise, a training or ascesis, sometimes even an ordeal, an 6preuve;
SM is not only about power, it is also about empowerment (including, to borrow
a homophonic neologism from my friend and colleague Karmen MacKendrick
derived from the notation "sm," "m-powerment") 66 ; SM is about care, caring for
the self, but also caring for others; most importantly, SM is about choice. One
does not have to do what one does not want to do, though there are many
reasons why one might "want" to do things that one "does not want" to do.
But I do not wish to sanitize or normalize SM by disingenuously
suggesting, as Bill Thompson does, that "the most severe SM acts are on a par
with ear piercing." 67 SM is also often about the extreme and sensational. Nailing
someone's scrotum to a board (one of the acts engaged in by the defendants in
Brown) is hardly on a par with ear piercing (not because it may be more painful,
but because of the leap of faith and amount of trust required to consent to having
it done), neither is being thrashed until your back is raw and bleeding, or being
completely wrapped in Saran Wrap for several hours ("mummification" in the
vernacular). And I suspect that something more than mere bewilderment crosses

64. See supra note 60.

65. Trevor Jacques, On the Safe Edge: A Manualfor SM Play (Toronto: WholeSM,
1993) at 11.
66. Karen MacKendrick, Counterpleasures: All the Joys of Pain [unpublished
67. Thompson, supra note 11 at 264.

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the visage of most people confronted with such images. After all, such images
are the stuff of nightmares, horror films, and representations of torture and
severe punishment. In cinematic representations, we rarely, if ever, see images
of people (other than villains and madmen) "enjoying" such things-defiant
"submission" in a "manly" sense, or terrified, helpless submission in a
"womanly" sense perhaps (these are, after all, the dominant cultural gender
codes), but not enjoyment. Indeed, to think that someone might enjoy such
things seems perverse, even insane, and thus to represent someone as enjoying
such things would be considered by most to be, well, obscene, as Butler
suggests. And, to recall Busby's concern that such images would be used against
women in a misogynistic, homophobic culture, should we, too, not be concerned
"that those masculinist men who might have access to such images [specifically
images of lesbian SM] will have little more critical insight than to defend their
sexual desires or their version of women's sexual desires by grunting " 'Well,
she's a woman and she likes it" or "Well, she's a feminist and she likes it?' "68
Although Hopkins is simply articulating a "radical feminist" 69 concern here
in the context of a paper which ultimately defends SM practice, he never really
addresses this particular problem of representation. But of course, this concern is
at the heart of Butler, and although Busby and other feminists might be open
enough to suggest that the perceived problematic status of SM practice vis a vis
feminist ethics and politics is something that can be discussed and perhaps
eventually resolved, legitimizing SM practice as ethical in certain specific
contexts would in no way resolve Busby and other feminists' concerns regarding
the unregulated representationof that practice regardless of context. This is a
very complex problem, and I am not sure I have the wisdom, and most assuredly
do not have the space, to attempt to resolve it here.
Subtending this concern regarding the representation of SM behavior is the
belief or presupposition that the behavior being represented is problematic
regardless of the specific context in which such behavior takes place. Taking up
this problematic from the perspective of an equality analysis, I would remark
that critics of SM practice invariably direct their criticisms toward SM tops,
generally presuming that SM relations are inherently unequal because the top is
perceived to have all of the power in the relationship (that is, complete
(coercive) "power over" the bottom), and that this power is corruptive and tops
are inevitably led (by the powerful sexual instinct or what have you) to abuse

68. Patrick Hopkins, "Rethinking Sadomasochism: Feminism, Interpretation, and

Simulation" (1994) 9:1 Hypatia 116 at 131.
69. Both Hopkins and I use the term "radical feminists" to refer primarily to feminists
who self-identify as "radical feminists" in their written critiques of SM, and more
specifically those who contributed to the anthology Against Sadomasochism: A
Radical Feminist Critique, supra note 23. 1recognize that some feminists who are
not "against sadomasochism" as such may also identify themselves as "radical,"
and that perhaps "anti-SM feminists" might be a more appropriate term to use.

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their partners. Entailed in this presumption is a second presumption that it is

primarily the tops who benefit from engaging in SM relations, by both acquiring
power and by having the freedom to exercise it with impunity. I will address the
question of who, if any one person, "has" power in SM relationships in a
moment, but the notion that all of the benefits of SM accrue to the tops almost
completely contradicts SM experience, particularly from the perspective of most
bottoms, as counter-intuitive as that may seem at first. It is a truism of the SM
scene that bottoms greatly outnumber tops, and one of the questions often asked
by bottoms is: what's in it for the top? Obviously this question is somewhat
disingenuous, but it suggests first that bottoms perceive SM practice to be
beneficial to themselves, and secondly that it is more beneficial to them than to
tops. I would argue that this perception is based in part on the recognition that,
from the bottoms' perspective, tops do not so much take power as take control,
and taking control in an SM context entails accepting a great deal of
responsibility, though accepting responsibility can itself be empowering if you
are so inclined. I will look more closely at the complex role control plays in SM
relations in a moment, but first I want to take up a challenge.

Genuine Pain, Genuine Violence: A Short Critique

of the Simulational Model

The challenge I am speaking of is articulated by Sandra Bartky, who argues that

a defense of SM practice founded in libertarian ideals "is essentially a liberal
response to a radicalcritique of sexuality, and, as such, it fails entirely to engage
this critique." 70 Even though Bartky may be right about a defense founded on
libertarian ideals, the point I would like to draw out of her proposition here is its
emphasis on the "radical" nature of the feminist critique of sexuality, which
suggests that, from the perspective of feminist politics, SM is a conservative
practice: specifically, SM practice conserves and perpetuates patriarchal (sexual)
relations (of oppression) by replicating them. Which is to say, rather than
perceiving SM behavior as aberrant, perverse and abnormal, and therefore
harmful to society, as did the British Lords, the radical feminist critique of SM
perceives SM behavior as normative, that is as an implication of normative
patriarchal relations. Or, to put what I take to be at the core of the feminist
critique of SM another way, patriarchal (sexual) relations are themselves
perceived to be inherently sadomasochistic, which seems to provide sufficient
justification for the collapse of sadomasochism into patriarchal forms of
In Rethinking Sadomasochism, Patrick Hopkins attempts to answer the
challenge presented by the radical feminist critique of SM by proposing that SM
relations are simulational rather than replicational:

70. Bartky, supra note 50 at 50.

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SM sexual activity does not replicate patriarchal sexual activity. It simulates

it. Replication and simulation are very different. Replication implies that SM
encounters merely reproduce patriarchal activity in a different physical area.
Simulation implies that SM selectively replays surface patriarchal behaviors
onto a different contextual field. That contextual field makes a profound
difference. 71

Although Hopkins wants to articulate a clear distinction between SM as

replication and SM as simulation, in the passage above they are linked insofar as
both refer to, or model, "patriarchal behaviors," even if only "surface"
behaviors. However, Hopkins argues: "SM scenes gut the behaviors they
simulate of their violent, patriarchal, defining features ... Like a Shakespearean
duel on stage, with blunted blades and actors' training, violence is simulated, but
is not replicated."' 72 Although I would agree that the behaviors engaged in during
SM scenes are not commensurable with "patriarchal behaviors," whatever that
phrase might refer to, on a scale of disingenuousness, the rest of the statement is
at the same level as Bill Thompson's statement that all SM activities are on a par
with ear piercing. Hopkins' simulation/replication distinction rests on a prior
distinction between the "simulated" and the "genuine," where he perceives
patriarchal violence to be "genuine" while SM violence to be merely
"simulated." Even though certain aspects of SM behaviors and relations could be
described as simulational, I do not agree with Hopkins that SM violence is
merely simulated (nor is it replicative, however), and the analogy Hopkins draws
between SM violence and a theatrical duel with "blunted blades" intimates why:
in SM practice the "blades" are not "blunted," and SM is not as deeply
analogous to theatre as Hopkins and others suggest. As Hopkins himself admits,
"many activities involve real whips, restrictive bondage, and genuine [as
opposed to simulated?] pain."
Providing another analogy to suggest how SM could be perceived as
simulational, Hopkins draws a parallel between SM experience and the
experience of being on a roller coaster, where "one has placed herself in the
position of simulating plummeting to her death, of simulating flying off into 74
space, of simulating the possibility of smashing into trees and metal railings,"
suggesting that one does not "really" want to plummet to one's death, but rather
enjoys the simulation as simulation. Unfortunately, this parallel branches apart
rather quickly. Although roller coasters do not generally fly off into space or
cause people to plummet to their deaths, SM practitioners do get flogged with
real whips and dominants do order their submissives to do things they might not

71. Hopkins, supra note 68 at 123.

72. Ibid. at 124.
73. Ibid. at 128.
74. Ibid. at 125.

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ordinarily choose to do. Which is to say, while roller coaster rides and duels with
blunted blades can be considered as something other than "genuine" forms of
violence and thus could be described as "simulations," the distinction between
"genuine" patriarchal violence and "simulated" SM violence simply does not
hold, unless a "genuine" act of violence is defined as nonconsensual. However,
such a definition severely limits the concept of "violence," such that it would be
inappropriate to describe sports such as football or even boxing as violent. More
to the point, however, proposing that patriarchal violence and SM violence are
both "genuine" forms of violence does not render them the same, just as surgery
is not the same as a street fight or, for that matter, ritual scarification, though I
think it legitimate to conceive of all three as a form of violence. Similarly,
oppression is not the same as dominance, spousal abuse is not the same as
flogging or "feral fights," 75 and an 18th-century American slave-owner is not the
same as an SM Master, and to collapse all of these together simply avoids the
complex and difficult task of critical thinking.
As I already mentioned, I do not think that Hopkins is wrong to suggest
that SM practice is in some respects simulational; rather, he is wrong to suggest
that SM is merely simulational, and fails to recognize the "genuineness" or
seriousness of SM "play." Moreover, no judge hearing an assault case is going
to be convinced by the abstract and highly theoretical argument that SM
violence is merely "simulated" (and in relation to obscenity law, in most cases it
would likely make little difference whether the violence being represented is
simulated or not). A couple of practitioners' musings on SM Master/slave
relations might help exemplify what I mean by "genuine." One practitioner (who
pens himself as "slave -") proposes:

The details of [a live-in, 24 hour a day 7 day a week Master/slave

relationship] varies tremendously among the different couples, almost to the
point of having no hard and fast rules how each of the partners should behave.
There are, however, two very important requisites that are always there: 1.
Regardless of any legal status, the slave regards himself as the property of his
Master; 2. Regardless of whatever form the relationship [takes],
the Master is
the one who makes all the final decisions in the relationship.

75. A sort of free-for-all "scrap" or wrestling match between partners generally

characterized by a great deal of scratching, biting, hair-pulling and slapping. As the
term "feral" suggests, there is a sort of "wild abandon" involved, though not
abandon to the point where serious injury is incurred.
76. 1 should point out here that I have anecdotal evidence that Master/slave relations
formed according to the model suggested here are much more rare in the SM
community than one might expect. A practitioner recently posted a message on the
internet complaining about the problems he experienced trying to find gay male
M/s couples in the New York area when he was looking for some couples to take
part in a seminar on Master/slave dynamics. As he puts it: "If NYC, the cesspool of
deviancy and depravity according to such experts as Jesse Helms and Pat

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Requisite I suggests that such relationships are simulational insofar as they

cannot be legally "real," but also that they are genuine insofar as the slave
"regards himself' as property. Requisite 2 suggests that irrespective of whether
ownership is simulated, the relation between master and slave is also genuine:
the master orders and the slave obeys (or is subject to punishment). To broaden
the scope of my critique of Hopkins' analysis beyond Master/slave relations, I
want to cite an analogy proposed by another practitioner during the same
"conversation" on the internet in which "slave -'s" requisites were articulated:

What is going on in a Master/slave relationship-whether for a weekend or a

lifetime-is very much the same as a consensual non-consensual scene or a
scene without safe words. Many s/m people who are not much interested in
the kind of dominance/submission rituals typical of M/s relationships still feel
a strong desire to surrender control to their partners in a way that doesn't seem
credible as long as they retain the power to halt the action at will ... A bottom
who negotiates a "no-limits" flogging scene with a top he trusts is doing
essentially the same thing as a slave who signs a contract according to which
he becomes a Master's property. Yes, in both cases the subs retain a moral
and, in our society, legal right to exit the scene or relationship at any point.
But in both cases they have given a solemn promise to their partners not to
exercise that ight.

It is this notion of "credibility" that I am trying get at by engaging in the

double gesture of both differentiating and conflating simulation and genuineness
in an SM context. If "surrendering control" is the primary aim of SM practice, as
I will suggest below, then it is essential that this abandonment of control is
genuine, otherwise the relation devolves into mere "play-acting" (or, one might
say, mere simulation) where control only appears to be surrendered, rather than
maintaining itself at the level of what I have termed "serious play." Thus, I
would like to put a somewhat different spin on the notion of simulation by
proposing that SM practitioners do not take the "real" (or even the veneer or
"surface" of the real) of patriarchal relations and violence and simulate it; rather,
SM practitioners take a fantasy relation (for example a Master/slave relation)
and (attempt to) actualize it, which suggests a very different conception of
simulation from that deployed by Hopkins. Thus, an SM relation is both/neither
fantasy and/nor reality. Or, to temper the paradox somewhat, SM practice might
be described as a genuine, if "stylized," performance of fantasy.

Buchanan ... can't provide a better stock of gay Masters and slaves than I've found,
then this must truly be a very rare trip despite the popularity of the fantasies."

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"Seeing" SM Differently: Queer Performativity, Modern Asceticism, and

the Dynamics of Control and Abandon

However, is it not this "genuineness" of SM relationships and behavior that

feminist critics are most concerned about? Moreover, having problematized
Hopkins' opposition between the "genuine" and the "simulational" and hence his
response to the charge that SM relations and violence merely replicate
patriarchal relations and violence, have I not left SM practice open to this charge
once again, particularly given Sandra Bartky's proposal that SM fantasies (as
markers of desire), irrespective of whether they are "actualized" or not, are
"wildly at variance with feminist principles"? Certainly, I am suggesting that
applying the concept of simulation to SM practice does not adequately answer to
this charge, and in order to more adequately respond to the charge, I would like
to replace Hopkins' distinction between "replication" and "simulation" with a
distinction between "replication" and "reiteration," and introduce the notion of
"queer performativity," which I am borrowing, in part, from Judith Butler's
discussion of the term "queer."
Citing the contemporary reappropriation of the term "queer" by gays and
lesbians (though not the secondary (re)appropriation of the term by SM
practitioners and other "sex radicals"), 78 Butler describes "queer performativity"
as a citational or reiterative practice, and proposes that "performativity ... is
always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms," 79 specifically, given their
hegemonic status, hetero-patriarchal norms. What Butler is suggesting is that
even practices that deviate radically from the norm necessarily cite or reiterate
the norm from which they deviate. Butler proposes that queer performativity (as
with all performatives) is linked to a "chain of historicity" which constitutes "a
set of constraints on the past and the future that mark at once the limits of agency
and its most enabling conditions."80 From the perspective of my concerns here, I
take this to suggest that the discursive construction of the stereotype of the
sadomasochist in dominant hetero-patriarchal discourse both limits the
performance of SM relations (both in the sense that such discursive
constructions "produce" sadomasochists who "recognize" themselves in, or are
interpellated into, these constructions, and in the sense that the performance of
SM relations necessarily reiterates these constructions, even if only in contrast)
and enables practitioners to perform SM relations differently or in resistance to

77. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York:
Routledge, 1993). Butler herself cites "Eve Sedgwick's recent reflections on queer
performativity" at 224. She is refering to Sedgewick's article "Queer
Performativity" (1993) 1:1 GLQ.
78. This reappropriation originated in the context of AIDS activism, as indicated in the
name of the AIDS activist group "Queer Nation."
79. Butler, supra note 77 at 12.
80. Ibid. at 228.

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the normalizing intentions of hetero-patriarchal relations of power. However, 81

Butler emphasizes that "reiterations are never simply replicas of the same."
Rather, although Butler does not put it quite this way, queer performances are
misarticulations or, if I may be allowed a pun, "malappropriations" of hetero-
patriarchal norms which pervert the normalizing aims of hetero-patriarchal
relations of power, thus operating, even if only in a limited, site-specific way, to
undermine these relations by exposing their contingency, among other things.
Butler's notions of reiteration and performativity seem to me to propose a much
more complex, flexible, and therefore less determinant model for analyzing SM
relations than the "patriarchal colonization of desire" model proposed by Bartky
and others, and I would suggest that marking the differences between the
contemporary performance of SM relations and the historical practices and
discursive constructions which they necessarily cite is equally, if not more
important, than marking their similarities.
Because of their seeming resonance with hetero-patriarchal norms, let me
take up the example of SM Master/slave relations. Masters and slaves are
"figures" in the history of patriarchal oppression, and as such are necessarily
cited by SM practitioners who identify themselves as masters or slaves.
Moreover, certain structural similarities must obtain between historical and SM
Master/slave relations in order for SM Master/slave relations to be appropriately
conceived of or experienced as Master/slave relations, thus the practitioner cited
earlier states that it is necessary for an SM slave to regard hirself as the property
of hir Master. The difference between "regarding oneself' as being owned and
"being" owned provides one instance of a misarticulation or "queering" of
historical forms of Master/slave relations, but this difference itself is founded in
a more fundamental difference: SM Master/slave relations are consensual,
historical Master/slave relations were not; thus, in a sense, SM Master/slave
relations mark a reversal of historical Master/slave relations. Which is to say,
historical Master/slave relations were relations of oppression; SM Master/slave
relations are relations of power, insofar as the slave is empowered to leave the
relationship. 82
SM relations also appear to replicate patriarchal relations because they are
rigidly structured around polarized roles. However, in contrast to the patriarchal
rhetoric which argues that such polar relations are founded on essential
differences (between sexes, between races, between classes, etc.) which
naturalize the hegemony of patriarchal power, this polarization is structural and
not essential. By this, I mean that the attributes accorded to each role are

81. Ibid. at 226.

82. This distinction is suggested by Foucault in "The Subject and Power," where he
states: "[W]here the determining factors saturate the whole, there is no relationship
of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains." Michel
Foucault, "The Subject and Power" (1982) 8 Critical Inquiry 777 at 790.

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structurally imposed rather than essential characteristics of the persons who

occupy these roles at any given point in time; thus it is possible (and, given the
fact that bottoms far outnumber tops in the SM community, often necessary) for
persons to switch roles. The switchability of SM roles operates to equalize SM
relations of power (primarily, here, in the limited sense of "power over") to a
great degree, though not all practitioners switch, and some forms of SM
relations, such as Master/slave relations, are relatively stable. Most importantly,
this "de-essentialization" of the roles in SM relations means that sex, race, class,
etc., are not factors which determine who occupies these roles, but rather desire,
predisposition and sometimes even necessity (as is sometimes the case in
But let me propose another way in which SM relations are more equal than
they appear to be. Contrary to what is implied in Bat-Ami Bar On's articulation
of "the arguments of the feminist opposition [which] focus on the nature of the
practice of sadomasochism", where she proposes that "the primary claim of [the
feminist opposition] is that the erotization of violence or domination, and of pain
or powerlessness, is at the core of sadomasochism and, consequently, that the
practice of sadomasochism embodies the same values as heterosexual practices
of sexual domination in general and sexually violent practices like rape in
particular," 8 3 "power" in SM relations is not polarized, such that the
top/dominant/Master "has power" and the bottom/submissive/slave is
"powerless." I would propose that an SM bottom does not give up power as
such, but rather surrenders control. That is, in contrast to Bar On's implied claim
that SM relations are polarized along an axis of dominance/submission, I would
argue that SM relations are structurally polarized along an axis of
control/abandonment. In a book written by two practitioners, The Bottoming
Book, SM is defined as "an activity in which one partner consciously [and]
consensually relinquishes control to another in at least one of four areas: role-
playing, helplessness, sensation or emotion" 84 (and I would point out that
"helplessness" is not quite the same thing as "powerlessness," particularly in an
SM context). This abandonment (and concomitant acceptance) of control, which
I would argue is at the "core" of SM, marks SM as an ascetic practice, "not in
the sense of abnegation but that of an exercise of self upon self by which one
tries to work out, to transform one's self."' 85 However, in contrast to Foucault's

83. Bat-Ami Bar On, "Feminism and Sadomasochism: Self-Critical Notes" in Lindon
et al., eds., supra note 23 at 75.
84. Unfortunately this quotation was taken from the internet and no publishing
information was provided, other than that the two authors' surnames are Easton and
85. Michel Foucault, "The Ethics of Care of the Self as a Practice of Freedom" in
James Bernauer & David Rasmussen, eds., trans. Joseph Gaunthier, The Final
Foucault (Cambridge: MIT, 1988) 1 at 2. 1 have written previously relating SM
practice and asceticism in my M.A. thesis: Terry Hoople, The SM Ascetic Praxis of

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seemingly solipsistic exercise of the self, SM asceticism is relational, and thus

the disciplinary exercises aimed at transforming the self are, for the most part,
"conducted" by the top. To use Foucault's terminology, I am proposing that SM
relations can be appropriately conceived of as "governmental," which is to say
as relations of power rather than as relations of oppression or domination in a
strong sense:

Perhaps the equivocal nature of the term "conduct" is one of the best aids for
coming to terms with the specificity of power relations. For to "conduct" is at
the same time to "lead" others (according to mechanisms of coercion which
are, to varying degrees, strict) and a way of behaving within a more or less
open field of possibilities. ... Basically power is less a confrontation between
two adversaries or the linking of one to the other than a question of
government ... To 86
govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of
action of others.

Foucault's description of the equivocal nature of "conduct" here is very

similar to how I would describe the nature of "control" in the context of SM
relations. But of course no person or apparatus of power can completely
structure the entire possible field of action in the sense of imposing absolute
limits to forms of action (or forms of resistance), unless, as Foucault points out,
one uses chains. Thus the freedom to act "differently," to resist and not conduct
oneself in the manner in which one is being led to conduct oneself, is an
essential element of power relations, as Foucault conceives of them. But before
moving to the discussion of control, let me offer my own construction of the
aims of SM asceticism.
As I would construct them, one of the primary aims of SM asceticism is to
strip away or abandon those aspects of the "self' determined through the
normalizing operations of hetero-patriarchal relations of power (actually, the
"self"-abandonment characteristic of some of the more extreme forms of SM
practice can go much deeper than this, that is to the abandonment of all sense of
"self" or, to put it another way, to the experience of "jouissance"). Although I
would propose that this end is entirely in keeping with the aims of feminism,
questions regarding the means still remain, though of course the means used by
SM practitioners, as extreme as they may seem, are inextricably linked to the
aim of SM asceticism. The "means" used in SM practice can be described as

Resistance: A Critical Ethnography (The Centre for the Study of Theory and
Criticism, University of Western Ontario, 1994) [unpublished]. My present
thinking in this context has been greatly influence by Karmen MacKendrick (supra
note 66), who, to my knowledge, is the only other person to have written
extensively on SM as a modern form of asceticism, though neither of us has
published this work as of yet.
86. Foucault, supra note 82 at 789-90.

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"disciplinary techniques" (for example, the infliction of pain and suffering,

dominance through controlling actions, restraint (bondage), etc.), and it is these
techniques which lend SM the appearance of merely replicating the worst
aspects of patriarchal oppression. But again, in SM practice the aims in
exercising discipline are "queered" (one might even say "perverted") from the
normalizing aims of patriarchal disciplinary techniques 8 7 and thus
performatively subvert these aims. To illustrate this, let me return to the
structure of SM relations.
The structure of SM relations is necessarily polar because it is both
desired-desired by both the bottom and the top-and necessary-in order for
the relationship to be defined as an SM relationship-that the bottom abandon
control of hir "self' (conceiving of "self' here as an embodied self, thus control
over hir body is, to a degree but never completely, externalized and also
abandoned) to the top, though it is important to recognize this abandonment as
the bottom entrusting the control of hir "self" to the top, as granting the top
authority to exercise control in trust. Equally, it is both desired (again by both)
and necessary that the top accept control-nothing could be accomplished if
both partners abandoned control-which is both a gift and a responsibility (or,
perhaps, engages responsibility because it is a gift). SM relations are also polar
in the sense that the top occupies the site from which violence (that is,
disciplinary techniques) is exercised, and the bottom occupies the site towards
which violence is exercised.
I want to emphasize here that in SM relationships violence is not used to
control someone in the same way that an abusive husband uses violence to
control his spouse. An abuser uses violence, and perhaps more importantly the
constant threat of violence, to disempower his victim, to wrest control from the
victim and make them a mere extension of his will. Moreover, an abuser lacks
both self-confidence and self-control, perceiving himself to be controlled by
factors "out of his control" (including his victim), thus he externalizes control
and seeks to impose it on others, through violence or "any means possible." This
is not the dynamic of violence and control characteristic of SM relationships.
SM bottoms willingly abandon or grant control to their tops, thus there is no
need to use violence in order to establish and maintain control. Indeed, SM tops
can only truly maintain control by not using violence to such a purpose, insofar
as SM is in the first instance about giving (up) control and not taking it. Rather,
violence in SM relations is used ethically as a disruptive technique of
"desubjectification," a process already facilitated through abandoning control.

87. As I do not have room to expand on this here, for a comprehensive and, I think,
persuasive analysis of the types and aims of the disciplinary techniques
characteristic of heteropatriarchal relations of power (though Foucault does not
describe them as such), see Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1:
An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990).

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Although it might seem that abuse is about "desubjectification" as well, an

abuser seeks to erase his victims sense of "self" through a process of
subjectification and oppression; that is, the abuser seeks absolute control and
dominance. In an SM relationship, on the other hand: "Absolute dominance is
not the symbol ... it's dominance given in trust and received voluntarily. It's
dominance tempered by an understanding of limits. It's dominance given with
humility and as love ... It's enjoyable to express or receive
dominance, but there
are other things involved. Emotional release. Affection."
There is another reason why persons prone to abuse do not "fit" the SM
scene and would have trouble finding partners within the SM community. One
of the primary things that submissives seek in their dominant partners is self-
confidence, and an abuser's lack of self-confidence would very soon betray him
in the emotionally charged atmosphere of SM play. Often practitioners speak
about this as being possessed of a proper "attitude":

The act of submission is largely performed to proper attitude, to a man

deserving of respect. Will power, intelligence, warmth and experience may be
involved. But more than often, it is humility that is paramount. That humility
is a sign that, if [he] has not been there [himself, he] at least knows and
respects the space that [his] partner is about to enter. Both top and bottom
give hard and second thought to the chains of their reality. Arrogance and
insensitivity have little place in this searching. 89

Clearly, such an exchange of respect is not characteristic of an abusive

relationship, but it is integral to an SM relationship. However, a little bit more
needs to be said about the nature of control in an SM context in order to clarify
the distinction between SM and abuse.
The consensual nature of SM practice, and the ethics of SM that arise from
the emphasis on consensuality, limit the amount of control that can be exercised;
which is simply to say that control can only be exercised up to the limits
imposed by the willing consent of one's partner, and if these limits are
intentionally transgressed, an SM relation becomes a relation of oppression and
thus abusive (and therefore legitimately subject to prosecution). Although some
might argue that proposing such a distinction is merely a rhetorical strategy
deployed to deflect the criticism that SM practice is inherently abusive, the
criterion upon which such a distinction rests is the same criterion upon which the
distinction between sex engaged in by willing partners and rape is based, that is,

88. Geoff Mains, Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration of Leathersexuality (San

Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1884) at 78.
89. Ibid. at 79. 1should point out that Mains is using masculine pronouns because he is
writing specifically about gay male SM culture. I would argue, however, that
Mains' insights about the characteristics sought in and by tops apply no matter what
the sex/gender of the top.

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consent. To extrapolate, an SM Master, must first be "Master of hirself," that is,

sie must be able to exercise control over hirself or, to use Foucault's
terminology, sie must conduct hirself appropriately before any bottoms are
likely to willingly entrust control over themselves to hir. Hence, Jack Rinella
articulates some of the traits the masters he admires have in common: "They
have learned technique, self-confidence, consistency, reliability, self-awareness,
care and patience." 90 And he adds: "They are self-controlled ... If you can't
control yourself, you will never really control another." 9 1 Here, we see the
similarities between "control" in an SM context and Foucault's notion of
"conduct" mentioned earlier, insofar as an SM top conducts the bottom's
discipline (exercises control over the bottom) and conducts hirself in a
disciplined manner (exercises control over hirself). Hence, in an SM context,
control takes the form of a responsibility, a "governmental" responsibility both
to oneself and to one's partner to ensure that things do not get "out of control,"
contradicting the British Lords' characterization of the sadomasochist as
uncontrolled. And I would caution against aligning the type of self-control
outlined here with the emotionless, somewhat aggressive and paranoid form of
self-control valorized in Western cultural representations of masculine
stereotypes. The type of control I am speaking about here is not gender-marked.
Rather, exercising control is a necessary function accorded to the person who
embodies the role of the top in an SM relation, whether that person is male,
female, transgendered, intersexed, or what have you. Finally, control in an SM
context, as Mains and Rinella suggest, is grounded in self-awareness and
humility, that is, in a recognition of one's limitations as much as one's "power"
and thus also in an acceptance of the fact that some things are simply beyond
one's control, and that ultimately one cannot control another, at least not
absolutely. 92

90. Jack Rinella, The Master's Manual: A Handbook of Erotic Dominance (San
Francisco: Daedalus, 1994) at 21-22.
91. Ibid. at 23.
92. Although I do not have the space to expand on this here, one of the things beyond
the control of the top and which thus subverts the polarized structure of SM
relations is what I will call the "jouissance of the other." As the root verb 'jouir"
suggests,jouissance is not so much about "pleasure" as it is about "enjoyment,"
including the enjoyment (for various reasons) of pain and suffering. In keeping
with the French, jouissance is also linked to orgasm though, within an SM context,
jouissance is not necessarily genitally focused, but rather is generally disruptively
diffused across and through the entire body (disrupting, primarily, one's sense of
"self"), and thus is more akin to what the Christian mystics described as "rapture"
or what we might paradoxically call an "ecstatic state" rather than what "we" (or
men at least) generally refer to when they speak of "orgasm." However, what I
want to point out here is that the inability of the top to control the jouissance of the
other intimates, a paradox at the core of consensual SM relations for anyone who
would desire to be a "true" sadist, as the following problem articulated by one such

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But why this desire to abandon control, and why is it necessary to use
"disciplinary techniques," including violence, in order to facilitate it? As a brief
response to the first question, I would put a slightly different spin on the feminist
insight that patriarchal power operates to partially limit what Foucault described
as an "open field of possibilities," and suggest, along with Foucault, that
patriarchal relations of power effect these limits insidiously through the
mechanism of "self-control," thereby "implicating" the "self" or subject in the
normalizing aims of patriarchal relations thus provoking the subject to discipline
hir "self' according to patriarchal desires. That is, by hegemonically dictating
what is both normal and desirable (and therefore what is perverse and abject),
patriarchal discourse evokes a disciplinary regimen "internal" to the "self' or
subject which, as Butler points out, cites patriarchal norms and desires. It is this
controlling "self" that SM practitioners seek to abandon in a paradoxical mode
of release through restraint, or, as I have been putting it here, abandonment
through control. What the critics of SM fail to recognize is how "m-powering"
the process of abandonment can be, that is, how, as Karmen MacKendrick puts
it, "freedom from subjectivity [that is the self] is freedom from the [patriarchal]
forces of subjection," 93 however temporary this freedom may be given that it is
always necessary to return to the bonds of subjectivity. But, to continue this
rather apt metaphor, every time one manages to throw off a few of the fetters
that constrain one's "self," the looser the bonds become, allowing more and more
movement within the "open field of possibilities" previously limited by one's
implication in patriarchal relations of power.
But why the violence? First of all I would emphasize that violence is
practiced in SM, which is to say that, unlike an abusive situation where violence
threatens to explode at any moment and without reason, thus keeping the abused
in constant state of fear of violence, violence is almost never expressed
haphazardly in the context of SM relations. Violence is expressed deliberately in
SM relations, that is, generally with forethought. The mode according to which
violence will be expressed (for example, flagellation, humiliation, bondage, etc.)
is generally agreed upon beforehand, and, again generally, both the expression
of violence and the mode which this expression adopts is in accord with the
expressed desire (or, similarly, the expressed limits) of the bottom. It is the top's
responsibility to conduct the expression of violence, but ultimately it is the
bottom's "response-ability" to terminate the violence.
The one aspect of SM practice that most nonpractitioners seem completely
unable to understand, or at least unable to accept as anything other than

person indicates: "[I beat my partner] because I am a sadist-my pleasure derives

from his suffering. If he is getting to a magical, transcendant place or experiencing
a euphoric high [that is experiencingjouissance],he is not really suffering and I am
not being pleased ... If suffering is caused by undesired actions, how can he suffer
if he is consenting to this, indeed is desirous of it?"
93. MacKendrick, supra note 66.

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symptomatic of practitioners" internalization of patriarchal ideology, is that SM

bottoms enjoy receiving violence. The reasons for this incredulity seem
relatively clear. First, there is our cultural symbolization of pain as necessarily
symptomatic of (primarily bodily) harm, and therefore as something that is to be
avoided, medicated, even eradicated if possible. But pain is much more
symbolically overdetermined than this, as Jesse Meredith's musings on pain

Pain is a sensation that I attempt to avoid. I derive no pleasure from it-if I

did, it would no longer be pain. To advocate pain for its own sake is, at best,
incomprehensible to me, sheer evil at worst. I associate the cultivation of pain
with the horrors of the Nazi Third Reich and the medieval Inquisition. 94
Historically, cultural desensitization to pain has led to incredible butchery.

But are all practices which "cultivate pain" necessarily on a continuum and
thus related to the most horrific examples of torture, mass extermination, and
patriarchal oppression, or does simply drawing such an analogy reflect an
historically conditioned bias against cultural practices which make use of
violence and pain? In the mid-19th century, George Catlin also felt the need to
cite the Inquisition in his description of the O-Kee-Pa, a Mandan ritual which
some might recall being re-enacted in the film A Man CalledHorse:

I entered the medicine house of these scenes as I would have entered a

church, and expected to see something extraordinary and strange, but yet in
the form of worship or devotion; but, alas! little did I expect to see the interior
of their holy temple turned into a slaughterhouse, and its floor strewed with
the blood of its fanatic devotees. Little did I think that I was entering a house
of God, where His blinded worshippers were to pollute its sacred interior with
their blood, and propitiatory suffering and tortures-surpassing, if possible,
the cruelty of the rack or the inquisition;
but such the scene has been, and as
such I will endeavour to describe it.

I do not wish to draw too close an analogy between Meredith's reflections

on pain (and the implicit criticisms of SM practice) and Catlin's description of
the O-Kee-Pa over a century earlier (and proposing an analogy between SM
practice and ritual ordeals such as the O-Kee-Pa is not entirely unproblematic,
though I think there is some justification for doing so), but I do not think it

94. Jesse Meredith, "A Response to Samois" in Lindon et al., eds., supra note 23, 96 at
95. George Catlin, Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians
(1841), cited in Vincent Crapanzano, "Hermes" Dilemma: The Masking of
Subversion in Ethnographic Description" in James Clifford & George E. Marcus,
eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1986) 51 at 55.

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merely coincidence or a simple recognition of an obvious truth that, when

confronted with a ritual practice which includes the use of violence and pain,
both draw a parallel to the Inquisition. Nor is Lord Templeman's characterization
of sadomasochism as a barbarous, uncivilized cult of violence merely
coincidental or simply "truth-saying." Rather, this tendency to demonize ritual
practices which include the use of violence and pain suggests that we are
culturally biased against such practices and have been so for a very long time.
This bias results in an interpretive blind spot, an inability to "see" such practices
differently (or even as the participants "see" them), that is, as anything other
than horrific and evil. But what I find odd, disturbing, and somewhat
disingenuous about the analogies that are drawn as a result of this bias is that
these horrific ritual practices are perceived as reflecting "our own" dark history
and prehistory, "our own" primitive or savage past. Thus Cheri Lesh suggests:
"The advocates of sadomasochism are our mirrors, our dark doubles, our
shadow selves. They act out that part of ourselves which we despise, that which
frightens us, that of which we are ashamed." 96 Although this solipsistic seeing-
self-in-the-other has plagued ethnographic inquiry until very recently, it allows
ethnographers (and I think most of the people mentioned in this paper could be
loosely described as ethnographers) the illusion that they speak with authority.
However, as the contemporary critique of ethnographic practice has pointed out,
such authority is gained only at the expense of "the native's" voice, that is, by
subordinating the "other's" self-representation.
In contrast to Catlin's interpretation of ritual practices, in his interesting
study of "how the experience of pain is decisively shaped or modified by
individual human minds and by specific human cultures," 97 David Morris cites
anthropologist Alan Morinis' research on various initiation rites and his
argument that "such ritually inflicted pain serves as a cultural mechanism for
inducing and signalling a transformation of consciousness." 98 I would add that,
in addition to this "transformation of consciousness," the initiates' social and
political relations were transformed as well, insofar as surviving the ordeal
marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, from being dependent upon
the tribe to full membership in the tribe with all of the accompanying
responsibilities. Obviously, notwithstanding Geoff Mains' characterization of
SM practitioners as "urban aboriginals" and the SM community as a
"leathertribe," SM is not an initiation ritual in the same sense that the O-Kee-Pa
and other initiation rituals are, but I would argue that it has far more in common

96. Cheri Lesh, "Hunger and Thirst in the House of Distorted Mirrors" in Lindon et al.,
eds. supra note 23, 202 at 203.
97. David Morris, The Culture of Pain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)
at 1.
98. Ibid. at 181. Morris is referring specifically to Alan Morinis' "The Ritual
Experience: Pain and the Transformation of Consciousness in Ordeals of Initiation"
(1985) 13:2 Ethos 150.

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with such rituals than it does with the Inquisition or the Third Reich. The most
important thing such a comparison suggests (providing one is willing to "see"
such practices differently), is that undergoing an ordeal in a ritual setting can be
empowering, that this "transformation of consciousness" does not necessarily
merely signify the inducement of a "transcendental state" or "euphoric high,"
but also potentially a transformation of subjectivity.
I want to add one final brief and necessarily allusive answer to the
question, why the violence? I have proposed that one of the primary aims of SM
practice is desubjectification, and John Caputo implies that during this process
of desubjectification (although he does not use this word) one "becomes
flesh." 99 He describes flesh as "what happens to a body that is stripped of being
and sense, that suffers the violent loss of its world."' ° In Caputo's schema, "the
body" (specifically the gendered body) is intertwined with "the subject" and
operates as, or at the locus of, relations of power, thus it is "an active, organic,
organized, intentional, deed-doing agency," whereas "flesh is but the stuff of a
body."' 0 1 Being reduced to flesh (and I am suggesting that this is what SM
practitioners are up to, at least in part) "is the unbecoming of the world, its
breakdown and loss of organization, even as the organic body dissolves into the
pulsations of limp flesh."' 10 2 Citing Foucault's analysis of relations of power
which constitute and normalize the body and "regulate what and who the I can
be" and "demarcate the limits within which the "individual" may range about,"
Caputo argues that:

Foucault does not analyze another power, the penumbra of power that the
Other, the marginalized one, emits, the battery of signals that the Other sends,
which is not normalizing power but the resistant power of the Other, the
power emanating from powerlessness. The power of vulnerable, powerless
flesh checks and disturbs the normalizing aggression of the same against the
other. 103

Here we have an intimation of what, besides consent, checks the

"aggression" of the top and prevents hir from exceeding the bottom's limits,
insofar as an SM relation is not only a relation of power, but a relation of this
"other power." However, I do not have the space here to expand any further, so I
want to end by having Caputo respond to the question regarding the need for
violence, a response that perhaps the Mandans could have given to Catlin if he

99. John Caputo, Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with

Constant Reference to Deconstruction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1993). See, in particular, the chapter entitled "Jewgreek Bodies" at 194-219.
100. Ibid. at 196.
101. Ibid. at 206.
102. Ibid. at 207.
103. Ibid. at214.

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SM, Feminism, and the Law/Hoople

had asked: "It is only in extreme moments-of pain and suffering, but also of
pleasure and ecstasy-that we become all flesh." 104


I think an anecdote might serve to summarize the problematics of representing

SM and thus of "seeing" SM differently as they have been articulated in this
paper. My friend Karmen MacKendrick once wrote to me:

One of the real problems in explaining or "justifying," still more in

celebrating sm to the unconverted is ... that the necessary theory is not
obvious; it requires a fair degree of both subtlety and sophistication ... But
how, then, do we approach the unconverted, the "opposition"? There isn't an
answer or an explanation short enough to fit into the margins of a student
paper, theoretically simple enough to toss off to a colleague disgusted by sm
and unhesitatingly assuming the same disgust in others. The complexities and
twists of sm, which may well be part of what makes it appealing to some of
us, may also be what blocks it off from so many people.

She had written this in the context of thinking about the response of some
of her students to an assignment she had given them in her philosophy class
dealing with First Amendment issues to search the World Wide Web for
materials they found offensive, and thus perhaps should be subject to censorship.
One of her students found a picture on a web page produced by a Toronto-based
SM magazine. Here is an excerpt from the student's reaction:

The picture [a woman on a rack, looking far more relaxed than tortured,
topless but not nude] 105was particularly disturbing to me because of the
vulnerability of the young woman. Although she looked like she had chosen
to be in that contraption, I thought she looked like she was going to be abused
or hurt in some way. Even if this type of sexual behavior does appeal to her
tastes, it does very little for the liberation of women and the constant struggle
for equality. (I guess to a certain point I am assuming she is being controlled
by a man or that a man is taking part in S&M with her. I feel that this type of
pornography is detrimental because it seems to appeal to those individuals
who have an appetite for torture and violence. More graphic pornography
exposes the individual to a greater degree, but does not have the disturbing
controlldomination overtones in it.

Recognizing that by suggesting that "more graphic" pornography exposes

the individual, the student probably meant that it exposes more of the body (or

104. Ibid at210.

105. This is MacKendrick's reading of the picture, not the student's.

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CJLS/RCDS Vol. 11 #1 (Spring/printemps 1996)

more of the sex act) than was exposed in the photograph she was analyzing, one
could read it ironically and counter that "the individual" is exactly what
pornography, and, moreover, representations in general are ill-equipped to
expose. Representations are always already interpretations, and as such even the
most divulging, the most lucidly articulated, experientially based self-
representation can itself be interpreted as a misinterpretation, or as merely
symptomatic. The catch is, of course, that the only way to challenge the
interpretation that one is misinterpreting or misrepresenting oneself is to offer a
more persuasive self-representation or "conflicting vision" in the hope that those
who feel compelled to (from your perspective mis-) represent you will be
persuaded to see things differently. This, rather than attempt to represent "the
truth" about, or even "justify," SM practice, is what I have attempted to do in
this paper.

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