Is Erotic Power Exchange A Culture?

Alternative lifestyles are frequently labeled “sub-culture.” Could it be erotic power exchange is much more than that?

Occasionally the erotic power exchange (BDSM) community looks at the gay community with a certain amount of envy, as a result of the fact that the latter has achieved quite a bit when it comes to general understanding for and acceptance of different lifestyles. One of the questions, asked in this respect, is the one about being a culture yes or no. Although that as such is a question that can be debated endlessly, fact of the matter is that the narrow – sexual only – approach does not seem to cover all aspects of erotic power exchange. So, are “we” a culture? Below is at least one answer to that question.

First of all: what is a culture? There are of course various definitions, but personally I like to use the one given by anthropologist Ruth Benedict (which is the more or less generally accepted one in the scientific community): “culture is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action with a characteristic purpose that pervades the forms of behavior and institutions of a society.” Hence, a culture is defined by a set of patterns.

Are “we” a “culture” (as in a religious culture, a national culture for example)? If culture is defined as being that total and all-embracing the answer to that question is NO, unless of course you would argue that BDSM-views and opinions have any specific relevance to and influence on social structures, general behavior patterns or institutions (which I personally consider quite unlikely). However, if you take the definition but add the words “limited” and “some”, the answer is: yes, we are.

The opposite of the above definition, by the way, is true for the BDSM-community: i.e., the world around us (society) has a direct influence on us (general perceptions, legislation, prejudice, political and religious views, to only name a few) and not in the way they have as a general factor in everyone’s life, but directly in (and as a result of) the ideals the community as well as individuals within that community strive(s) and stand(s) for.

There are other methods to find out whether or not BDSM is a culture. One of them is to try and establish if there are concepts, views and behavior patterns within a “group” that seem to be more or less generally accepted and are at the root of the group behavior (chaos-theory).

Behavior patterns

Thus the question is: are there such concepts, views and behavior patterns? The answer here – in my view – is yes, there are: there is a more or less generally accepted lingo (that at least is generally recognized), there are concepts (voluntary, informed consensual, safe and sane for example, negotiation for example, safewords for example). We may not be to good at exactly describing them, but there are norms and values: in general the community has a pretty good general idea about what is acceptable behavior in the group and what is not. In the same way there are (again not specifically written down) certain more or less generally accepted ethics.

And next to that there even is a more or less “creative process” based on the group’s ideas (design, clothing, art, photography, writing and more) that usually is recognized as “belonging to or within the group”.

Finally, do we have specific and more or less general behavior patterns? The answer again is yes. Coming out for example, finding information, communication and even some negative ones, like taking things personal and concentrating on personal ideas and interpretations as opposed to more general ones.

So, this method also seems to proof there at least is something indicating a culture, albeit not a very well studied and described one (but then again many cultures are not very well, or not at all described, such as many tribal cultures and the entire Maya culture for example).

Is all this enough to claim “we” are/have a culture. With sufficient modesty to say that we will probably not make a difference in changing the world’s general ethics my answer to that question is yes.

Are we a sub-culture? A sub-culture is a derivative from something else. Personally, I can not see where we are a derivative of something else, so no, I wouldn’t say we are a subculture. And this is where I think we first meet some arguments of the “outside world” that tries to narrow BDSM down to a form of sexual behavior (and to many preferably a sexual deviation). Why would the outside world do that? The answer in my mind is obvious: fear. Sexuality in many (especially Western) societies is something that has always been looked at with double standards. Religions for example (and they have a traditionally strong influence on sexual behavior) have a very double standard here. On one end for example they praise the phenomena of life and giving birth, while at the same time they will condemn women the moment they show physical signs of their ability to give life (like menstruation, pregnancy and such) and call them impure. They will endorse big families with many children but at the same time condemn the act that is at the very root of reproduction.

Fear on one end and narrow minded political views about controlling people’s lives on the other are what brings about this element of fear and hence the well-known rhetorical trick of creating a “common enemy” (the evil). “We” are “an evil” in that sense and this evil is described in very simple, one dimensional straight forward terms that usually have little to do with the truth. Which is only one reason to stay away from a purely sexual/psychological approach and try to put things in a somewhat broader perspective.

What is this culture made of?

So, if we are a culture, what is that culture made off? That is where it becomes very hard. There is little research to rely on or find answers in and unfortunately any debate about trying to describe the culture will almost automatically turn into a debate about personal preferences. The reasons for this happening are actually quite simple. Most of “us” live in a very narrow, closed environment when it comes to BDSM (which is not a negative connotation but merely an observation and in itself a direct result of the general social stigmatism and prejudice) and as a result many people only have their personal ideas and feelings to go by, while on the other hand the subject itself directly hits home with almost all of us and brings out – understandable – fierce and intense emotions.
The Internet – even though a blessing in some ways – is not exactly helpful either, since the “net-community” seems to go through exactly the same growing pains the “real life community” (at least in Europe) has gone through some 15 to 20 years ago. Hence, for the moment on the Internet history is only repeating itself, which is not bad as such, since it helps the vast numbers of newcomers, but is of little or no help when it comes to try and debate, research more abstract issues like this one.

Different cultures

As for example Weinberg and Falk (“Studies in Sadomasochism”, 1983) conclude, there is very little methodical and theoretical research from the sociological field available when it comes to BDSM. If any work has been done in this area, most of that is journalistic research and not scientific. Still, one fact is generally accepted in the scientific field (and in other areas): there are huge differences between the gay/lesbian and heterosexual BDSM-cultures.

Coming out (which to gay/lesbians is a “second coming out”) for one thing is totally different, primarily because coming out as a concept is alien to the heterosexual world since it has never been a real issue. Hence there is little experience with the phenomena and whereas coming out is recognized as probably the most important stage in the life of a homosexual (and treated and respected as such), in the heterosexual world it is predominantly still ignored or undervalued.

Other main differences are in the social behavior patterns. Especially gay men – within their community – are not only more open to different forms of sexuality, it is also very common to act out preferences in a more or less public environment such as gay bars and meeting places. Try acting out your heterosexual BDSM preferences in a public bar or in the local community center and you’ll have huge problems. Also, there is a much more integrated process of accepting different preferences within the gay/lesbian community and hence there is a lot more openness and willingness to investigate, whether for personal use or just for better understanding. So yes, there ARE at least two different BDSM-cultures with their own patterns, behavior and general dynamics.

BDSM influence in other social areas

To ascertain if BDSM as such is a culture one method is to identify if the phenomena as such has any influence in other social areas. This is an incomplete list of such influences.

  • * BDSM has a (sometimes even quite substantial) influence in areas like fashion, pop music, movie industry and art. In European countries it even has an influence on advertising.
  • * BDSM has its own literature, art and fashion.
  • * BDSM has its own media (print and Internet)
  • * BDSM has its own places for gatherings (clubs, the above facilities, groups, gatherings, munches)
  • * BDSM has its own organizations (local, national and some – like the NLA – even internationally)
  • * BDSM has its own lingo, different form others, some of which influences other areas
  • * BDSM has its own concepts, some of which have also been accepted in or adopted by other areas
  • * BDSM is an economical factor, in the forms of products like videos, toys, gear, more or less dedicated shops, media and art galleries, clothing and such and – weather we like it or not – prostitution.
  • * BDSM is scientifically recognized as a phenomena of its own.
  • * BDSM is the subject of research in different scientific areas (psychology, psychiatry, sociology)
  • * BDSM is condemned by other groups, including some very influential ones.
  • * BDSM has lead to specific legislation to try an ban it in various countries and regions.
  • * BDSM is the subject of political debates and decision making.

Different cultures within the community

Are there different cultures within hetero BDSM? I tend to think there are at least two: Maledom/femsub and Femdom/malesub. First of all, of course they have a lot in common. Probably eighty to ninety percent of their basic cultural patterns are exactly the same (albeit maybe slightly different in their format and presentation). However, there are a few basic differences that in my opinion make them different (mind you, I am not advocating one is better than the other, just different). So where are these differences?
First of all there is a difference in social acceptance. For example, the more or less general assumption is that men can take better care of themselves when it comes to security risks. Hence, a submissive male is generally seen as “less vulnerable” when compared to female submissives. To a certain extent that is true. Male sexuality in general is more open and men are much more used to share their sexual experiences and thoughts with others than women. Men are – more than women and again generally speaking – more used to things like masturbating, exploring their sex organ and the sex organs of others and are more likely to talk about this to others and experiment. Hence they have an advantage when it comes to taking risks and coping with vulnerability. This, by the way, should not be taken as a statement that the male submissive actually is or feels less vulnerable, because this is probably not true.

Another main difference is in the difference in sexual experience. The male experience simply is a more physical one, whereas the female experience is much more mental. This brings about differences in attitude, play forms, safety issues and interaction as well as a couple of cultural differences such as the fact that female submissives are much more receptive – and have a different attitude towards – fantasy.

Female submissives have other cultural differences, such as the conflict of roles (mother, career person, central function in the household/relationship and submissive) which is much more dominant to them then it is to male submissives (and usually much more of a problem). And to many there is the female (social) masochism and role-stereotyping in general (that is not good, but still very much “there”).

By the way, here a nice example of similarities as well since this is something the lesbian world also has substantial problems with.
Male dominants – as opposed to their female counterparts – also have many differences, such as their own role conflicts (men aren’t supposed to beat women and are brought up that way – in many cultures men still aren’t supposed to show their softer sides, hence many have never learned how to do that). And, simply because the subs are different, the dominants are different.

There probably is a long list of other differences, one that should for example be considered is the fact that as a result of the widespread commercialization of the Femdom world, it is a lot easier for male subs to at least find a format to live out their fantasies than it is for female subs.

Is it functional to recognize such differences? I think it is. Not in an effort to conveniently cut up the cake in very tiny pieces in order to find sufficient similarities to determine one specific group, but in an effort to try and identify the differences and address them. Like brothers and sisters are part of the same family, they have their own specifics wants, needs, dynamics and interactions and understanding each other better starts with identifying and understanding the specifics of the other, identifying where differences and where similarities are. Just as it often is very counterproductive to address certain problems by only using either male or female logic (ultimately the combination of both is what usually produces result) it is not very productive to try and push everyone “into the same corset” when it comes to defining cultures. Understanding that there are similarities AND differences is what will eventually establish a better understanding of the entire group.

General significance

Finally, does all this have a relevance when it comes to educating and informing the outside world? Again my opinion here is a positive one. Why? Because the outside world is constantly mixing up different aspects of the different cultures, which does not help the debate nor the education. For example, whenever I am asked to participate in a television program, talkshow, do an interview or whatever on BDSM my first question for the journalist/producer will be “what BDSM?” That usually – apart from it being a very effective way to delay the entire production for a considerable period – leads to a fundamental discussion during the production phase about what the show/interview/documentary is supposed to achieve. That will automatically – usually – lead to a better understanding by the journalist(s)/producer(s) involved and will improve the quality of the end product as well as well the quality of future products by the same producer/journalist. I will do exactly the same when preparing a presentation in any other format and – for example when it comes to informing law enforcement people – one simply has to identify and explain the different cultures because the officer involved will have to be able to judge individual situations in real life and a gay scene is something that is usually totally different from a hetero scene in the first place (not to mention the cases where a male is in fact an abuse victim).
Bottom line: if we want to inform and educate others (which is I think what most of us – latent or not – want or would like to see happen) the first question to ask is: what do we want to inform and educate them about?

©2007 Hans Meijer

Hans Meijer is 54, a Dutch former journalist and government spokesmen, webmaster and filmmaker, active in the sexual and erotic information realm. He was the chairman for powerotics Foundation (now closed). This organization is dedicated to provide quality information about alternative lifestyles. His 5 e-book series “Shibari Fumo Ryu” about the Japanese erotic Shibari technique and art is considered groundbreaking. Reproduced with permission.

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