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The Formation of Identities Through BDSM

The Formation of Identities Through BDSM

If you were to view Tymber Dalton on any normal day, her life would look nothing but ordinary. Her husband makes her coffee when she wakes up, she spends the day writing her next book or helping at her local club. Her husband cooks for her in the evening and they watch a movie before separating for the night when he goes to bed and she goes back to writing.

From the outside, she lives a very typical, boring life. However, away from the eye of the public, she has a secret identity; Dalton lives a 24/7 BDSM life. Dalton explains it quite simply, “He takes care of me and the house and the animals, and I’m basically in charge” (6). Dalton is the dominant one in her marriage, both inside the bedroom as well as in day-to-day life. By taking charge, Dalton also becomes the person impacted if things go wrong, “Overall, however, I set the ‘rules’ and make the big calls. It also means I bear the responsibility for those calls” (1).

What this means, within the context of their marriage, is that her husband is her submissive, taking particular care of her and their household, whereas she gets to make the decisions and shoulder the burden for a lot of issues that arise. Her husband continuously acts in a submissive way that allows Dalton to retain power over him without causing him harm or causing her too much work. She specifically describes their relationship in such that her submissive husband does these tasks around the house and for her personally of his own free will. “We have a few rituals, like he makes my coffee for me every morning when I wake up, but this is what works best for us. I prefer he shows me his submission by doing what’s expected of him without me needing to remind him, or it having to be a huge production” (Dalton 1). These expectations and appropriate acts enable Dalton and her husband to lead lives that they both find fulfilling.

In addition to her relationship with her husband, Dalton takes part in a polycue V relationship (One person in relationships with two people, neither of whom have relationships with anyone else). Her relationship with her partner also involves vast amounts of BDSM play, however in a different way. Most notably, Dalton and her partner engage in ‘switch’ BDSM, where the typical dominating one will in turn become the submissive one. This creates a different dynamic for the relationship that is not present with Dalton and her husband. In many ways, Dalton and her partners relationship does not differ from standard dating relationships. “He’s only a couple of years older than me, and we have several vanilla interests in common, so most of what we do is actually not kinky and more boyfriend/girlfriend. It’s reallythat boring” (Dalton 3).

They spend time together, eat meals together, watch movies. However, there are instances where Dalton’s dominating side comes out in full force:

But there’s things like I sometimes have to ‘order’ my partner to let me pay for dinner, because if I don’t, he’d pay for everything. . Or he insists on always meeting me at my car and carrying my things inside. Or if he’s picking me up to take me to his place for the weekend, he insists on carrying my things out to his car. Things like that. He cooks for me when I’m there. He defers to me about planning our activities. (4)

In many ways this could just be seen as being chivalrous. But there lies an underlying power dynamic that is not always apparent.

Moser once stated that “the lack of understanding of BDSM has led to many misconceptions as well as fear, which may further alienate those who are active in the lifestyle” (43). Into modern day, this holds true for BDSM relationships like Dalton’s and many others. While the concept may be at the forefront of popular culture today, this lifestyle is still drastically misunderstood by large swaths of society. At its most basic of form, BDSM refers to a relationship between two or more people that includes either bondage and discipline (BD), domination and submission (DS), or sadomasochism (SM) (Brown 781). Williams described that, in most cases, BDSM participants take part in a subculture surrounding the identity. In doing so, they attend parties and clubs, form social networks, and develop lasting relationships – all revolving around their BDSM identites (337). Dalton explains her views on BDSM is slightly less clinical terms:

There’s an umbrella. On one end, there’s people who like to play games in the bedroom. Or like to cross-dress for fun or sexy reasons, not because they’re trans. Or people who like to have their ass smacked. People who like to do puppy or pony play, or who are furries. People who will go to a BDSM club on occasion. People who go to a BDSM club on a regular basis. People who live 24/7 as Master/slave. And people who get off on doing flesh hook suspensions. And eeeevvveerrywhere in between. An umbrella of kink. (11)

Ortmann and Sprott described it as an ‘erotization of power’ (11). Researchers who have attempted to further officially categorize where BDSM falls in the wide expanse of human sexuality have run into difficulties as to ascertaining the exact nature of BDSM. However, Moser & Kleinplatz were able to redefine it as either “a sexual orientation, a socially constructed behavior, a lifestyle choice, or any combination of these” (4). Another issue researchers have run into is the idea that BDSM holds different meanings for different people. For example,

Langridge ran into the differing views where, to some, BDSM is just one aspect of their sexual life. While for others, and our main focus during our examination, consider BDSM to be a central part of their identity (377).

Regardless with how you partake in the subculture or lifestyle, one truth remains engrained for all members. Consent. Consent can involve many distinct aspects beyond just an enthusiastic yes. It also revolves around the concepts of hard limits, boundaries, communication, and safe words. All of these are intricate to taking part in BDSM relationships in a healthy and safe way. To some, this level of control and trust are even more erotic than the actual acts taking place. “For some practitioners, BDSM was not only about sexuality. Instead, power exchange, discipline and security were key factors, where the significance of consent is central” (Carlström 408). We will discuss power dynamics later in this paper, but it is important to take note that these relationships, when done correctly, are not able to take place without enthusiastic consent. If anything, BDSM encounters are the exact opposite of abuse; they require trust, communication, and absolute understanding.

When taking note of BDSM relationships, albeit mostly not 24/7 ones, it is important to see just how prevalent they are within our society. In a study conducted by Brown, where 60 articles were reviewed, “BDSM fantasies were expressed by 40-70% in both males and females, with 20% of participants reporting having engaged in BDSM” (780). Another study done by Holvoet et al., which was representative of the country, reported that almost 69% of participants expressed ever having one BDSM fantasy or practice. Of these participants, the majority identified as white, upper class, and well educated (1153). A further study, done by

Wismeijer, consisting of 902 BDSM participants and 434 control participants, found the following:

When looking at the overall characteristics of BDSM participants, when compared to non-BDSM participants, they are shown to be less neurotic, more extraverted, greater willingness for new experiences, and more conscientious. They also exhibited healthier attachment styles. The overall conclusion of the study was that participants in BDSM relationships experience higher subjective well-beings than those in control groups. In the end, these conclusions lead to the idea that BDSM practitioners are characterized by greater interpersonal and psychological strength as well as great autonomy (1949).

By reviewing this data, it is easy to see that those who participate in BDSM relationships can be classified as healthy, whole individuals, and are acting within their own self interests.

The purpose of this piece is not to just give an over-view and case study of BDSM relationships. Instead, it is meant as an opportunity to delve deeper into the identity of self, how it relates to being a BDSM practitioner, and how it is impacted by the ideals and stigmas that society holds. To begin with, I was to address a couple of the concepts surrounding identity and how they relate to the BDSM umbrella.

To start at the beginning, we will focus on the idea of recognition. Weeks argued that there are two moments within sexual citizenship: transgression and acceptance (41). This imparts the idea that there are two moments of recognizing your sexual identity. The first of these is transgression, in which an individual has the first deviant thought. The first thought that they might have desires that are outside of their current comfort zone. The second of these, acceptance, takes place when the individual begins to take part in the activity. To accomplish both tasks leads to a designation of identity towards the individual. For some people, this process is quick and all consuming, as is designated in Carlström’s study:

Another informant, Magnus, remarked: ‘There tends to be a dividing line between those who say they always knew, that even when you were a child and had no sexual experience, you knew. And I belong to that group’. For people with this attitude, the first meeting with a BDSM community is often associated with a feeling of ‘coming home’. To understand that there are others like yourself, or as Magnus put it: ‘to fall into each other’s arms, where there is finally someone who understands’. Many described the feeling as one where ‘everything falls into place’, where you are allowed to be yourself and express all parts and aspects of yourself (409).

The act of acceptance allows a measure of self-identity that one can use to feel included within the community.

Another important aspect of forming an identity involves the imperative aspect of identities being self-defined. The process of identity construction is also rather individualized and often inherently self-defined, so much so that the denial of such a frame of understanding related to identity development eliminates subjectivity, most especially for communities of color (Sheff & Hammers 2018). The formation of identity must be done by the self to have the intended impact in life. BDSM offers an excellent opportunity to be able to do this as it encourages others to search inside themselves to find all the true aspects of their identity.

Dalton postulates quite succulently how important it is that we each define our identities for ourselves, and do not depend on the identities of those around us, “As a society, we need to be able to accept people who and where they are, and realize that it’s not any kind of statement about ourselves if they are a certain way” (10). Dalton further goes on to express to us that it is important for couples and individuals to express their identity within the confines of their relationships, and not try to be someone you aren’t, “I don’t bottom to Hubby. We tried that after I discovered my bottomy side, and it ended badly. LOL Usually with me yanking whatever was in his hand out of his hand and saying, no, that’s not how you do it, let me show you“(5). Finally, and arguably most importantly, she gives us an excellent example as to the end result of positively identifying and expressing your identity when she shows us that she now lives a freer life, “In my case it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s who and how I am. Embracing that part of me openly means I can live authentically and so can my husband” (2).

One last important term to note has to do with the idea that identities are not fixed and, instead, are ever changing. It is important to realize that identities change and develop over time, as part of a constant construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction that individuals go through (Baldwin 174). Once groups have become self-defined, such as BDSM groups, it is impossible to designate the identities formed as fixed, as the community has the ability to reform current ideas or create new ones (Carlström 405). Deleuze and Guattari lead us even down the proverbial rabbit hole when they point out that all of life is ‘becoming’, whereas desire acts as a productive and creative force, consisting of constant change ([1987] 2012). This gives us good prose that our identities are an ever changing and expanding portion of ourselves, with which our sexuality is a distinctive portion. To assume ourselves as ‘fixed’, is to discount all the experiences and relationships we will take part in as time moves on. For Dalton, this expansion within her relationships revolved around the role she played with her partner:

Then, when I decided I wanted to experience bottoming to make me a better top, I talked to him about it, because we already had a relationship and trust bond. And that’s when we accidentally discovered how much I enjoyed bottoming on occasion. But also, that it helped with my chronic pain and anxiety when I did it, too. And we discovered a lot of emotional triggers from the past that I didn’t even realize I still had and were able to work through many of them in a safe way (12).

There’s so much more that could be expressed here concerning formations of identities, but the main point I want to make is that identities are ever changing, and are formed and reformed through a wide variety of relationships and experiences.

Very briefly I want to address two different schools of thought surrounding BDSM and the relationships involved. When viewing BDSM through a psychological lens, we are treated to the information that many people consider those participating in BDSM to suffer from either a mental illness or experienced abuse (possibly sexual abuse) as a child – both of those leading individuals, it’s believed, to engage in risky and possibly harmful sex. However, studies have shown that this is not true. Wismeijer’s results contested this view; if differences in attachment were found, the control group had the lowest attachment scores, whereas the doms scored highest. In addition, the subs scored either similar to or better than the control group on attachment (1950). Another study has shown that there is a lack of support regarding childhood abuse leading to BDSM as an adult. Similarly, a population study performed by Richters, et al., found “no link between psychopathology, abuse, and BDSM” (470). On a more personal note, Dalton relates her experience with mental health within the BDSM community:

It’s not a replacement for mental health care, but I literally know people who’ve regained sexual agency and have had cathartic healing from past sexual trauma due to BDSM. I know people who were into self-harming who have found a safer, healthier outlet because of BDSM (10).

If we’re looking at these studies as a whole, Connolly showed us that “in general, BDSM practitioners have comparable status of mental health as the general population” (94). Further expansion and consideration could be made of the differing theories and psychological models surrounding BDSM individuals. However, for our purposes, we will leave it with the idea that several health care professionals, as well as large parts of the population, believe those that participate in BDSM to suffer from some mental distress.

As we touched on the psychological aspects surrounding BDSM participants, I wanted to also give a brief nod to the sociological perspective and what it believes regarding this situation. One of the most influential theories we can examine for our needs is that of Foucault’s notion of bio-power. As Foucault argues, sexual discourse is one of the principal objects of biopower governmental reason, constituting a crucial factor for understanding human behavior within the context of a focus on somatic phenomena such as birth and hygiene (317). Today, however, sexuality can be considered as:

Not only a type of knowledge belonging to the realm of identity but also a commodity, forming part of the construction of selves and communities within consumption societies. Here, the establishment of diverse structures of selfhood representing various forms of sexual fantasy and desire holds a prominent place about individual citizen identity as an active sexual agent. (Langdridge 673)

Foucault discusses that an individual’s sexual proclivities are one of the main objects of identity that society attempts to control using bio-power. He further goes on to state how sexuality is a commodity of the self – an important and distinct aspect of the individual. He shows us that the individual is an active sexual agent, and must use that to fight back against society and their oppression. This is also expressed in Carlström, where she expresses that we only become ourselves through relationships and experiences, and that finding others like us allows us to become human. She further goes on to state that, jumping off Foucault’s concept of power, it is desire and wanting that makes it possible to create productiveness out of our relationships (407)

As has been expressed throughout the course of this paper, there are many members of society that have negative views of those who participate in BDSM. This disdain can come from professionals, medical doctors, family and friends, or just the general public. Part of this negative press comes from the media and their portrayal of BDSM in popular culture, namely the book 50 Shades of Gray and its grotesque, inaccurate, and harmful depiction of what a BDSM relationship entails. Dalton joins us once again with her viewpoint on the phenomenon, “It’s not “just” about sex. It’s NOT “abuse.” Fifty Shades of Grey is in NO way a realistic or healthy depiction of a consensual or healthy BDSM dynamic. And you probably already know people in the lifestyle” (14). None the less, while this book depicted a very negative portrayal of BDSM relationships, it did do some good by bringing these relationships to the forefront of popular culture. Today we live in a world where to take part in a BDSM relationship is not nearly as taboo as it was a couple of decades ago.

One of the ways we have accomplished this is by using the narrative to push the boundaries of what society deems ‘acceptable’. By doing so, we have gained ground for the acceptance of this lifestyle. The cultural reputation of a BDSM practice is, in part, determined by the way it is presented publicly, especially the extent to which it can be considered acceptable in the context of rules around safety and consent (Weinberg 47). Beyond communities, the dominant discourses of sexology and psychology are bounded by limits of BDSM acceptability (e.g. around erotic asphyxiation), in similar ways to the boundaries adopted by most BDSM websites and books (Downing 124). Here, BDSM discourse, in communities or in the public sphere, determines the boundaries of acceptability and permissibility through a positive argument concerning the need to learn safety behavior (Weinberg 45), and a negative argument concerning the public elimination of non-permissible behavior. In this way, the rights, activities and identity of the BDSM subject are conditioned through the SSC discourse within a practical consent framework (Langdridge 670). By bringing BDSM relationships into the spotlight, regardless of how, we have started to push societal boundaries and shape an environment in which people participating in consensual, safe kinks are not stigmatized by those around them.

Gender roles, and their part within the BDSM lifestyle are another aspect of contention that is often brought up when making the case against those participating. Specifically, the feminist model of psychology, as stated by Brown, puts forth the idea that BDSM is inherently misogynistic, and pleasure from degradation or pain stems from internalized patriarchy (801).

Traditional gender roles have also been demonstrated during studies done that were investigating dominance and submissiveness within relationships and sexual fantasies. Yost and Hunter conducted a survey consisting of 144 women and 128 men who self-identified as being a BDSM participant. The following results were found:

In line with previous research, overall participants were more likely to identify as submissive than dominant. In addition, male-identified participants identified as dominant 37% of the time, while female-identified participants identified as dominant 17% of the time. No definitive scientific data have concluded the reason for the cause of the difference in this preference, though it is likely influenced by sexual schemas that encourage male dominance and female submission (251).

However, those that use gender roles as their main protest towards BDSM relationships have not spent their time doing their research, as there is an expanse of research out there that refutes these claims. A study done by Lammers and Imhoff showed findings that suggest that, for several BDSM participants, BDSM roles can liberate individuals from, instead of reinforcing, gender roles (146). When we look at Dalton’s specific relationship, we can find this to be true as well. At one-point Dalton discusses having her much larger, submissive partner submit to her in public, “No one would ever guess he’s “submissive” to me. And I think that’s even sexier, because it’s like a safe game we can play in public that no one even knows is going on” (2).

These people creating an issue with BDSM relationships also tend to completely disregard the positive aspects that it can have. Herbert and Weaver have recently conducted research that has begun to explore the positive impact that involvement in BDSM has on the community, including an increase in self-acceptance and personal growth, although it is noted that self-acceptance does not shield someone entirely from stigma and discrimination (61). Taking parts in these relationships and communities allow individuals to grow in a safe and healthy environment, while still being allowed to explore new and interesting aspects of themselves. On a more personal note, we can look at what Dalton says she has learned while on this journey:

I’ve learned a lot about myself and negotiation, and how important trust and communication are. I’ve also learned to check myself. But also, that [bottoming] helped with my chronic pain and anxiety when I did it, too. And we discovered a lot of emotional triggers from the past that I didn’t even realize I still had and were able to work through many of them in a safe way (13).

We have explored the issue of BDSM relationships, and their formation on identity, in several ways and through several lenses through the course of this paper. We know the past, we know the present, the good and the bad. So, where do we go from here? What’s next in the world of BDSM and kink communities? I think Dalton phrases it in a very succulent way, “The expectation of a “default” needs to go away. Once people can accept others (consenting human adults) as they are, where they are, and also accept they can fluctuate and change over time in their roles and needs, I think everyone would be a lot happier” (14). Dalton touches on a very important topic here; acceptability. We are in a day and age where we can push for the acceptance of BDSM (and other kinks) within our community. We need to push for actual education on kinks and move people away from being influenced by the media – that’s how we get to the issue we had with 50 Shades of Gray. Education, acceptance, communication. Many practitioners assign shame and guilt to their sexual-identities and BDSM practices (Carlström 408). Dalton expresses a similar view:

I hope it becomes more accepted and understood as a valid and healthy thing. I don’t mean people should be leading each other around by leashes in public (non-consensually exposing vanillas is NOT cool) but there shouldn’t be any shame tied to it. I hope that, like everything else, acceptance becomes the norm. If you don’t like BDSM, don’t have a BDSM-centered relationship (13).

We need to move forward as a society to remove these stigmas surrounding BDSM and kink practices. “Too many people think BDSM is abuse—people on all sides of the political spectrum. Consensual, healthy BDSM is NOT abuse—it’s actually empowering” (Dalton 10). More than anything, we just need to foster an environment where people taking part in these communities are recognized as valid and viewed as just exploring their identity. More than anything, we need to get them accepted. I’m not sure if we will do it, but things are absolutely pointing towards more understanding and better communication. Hopefully we will be able to accomplish these goals.


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