You may have noticed in the past few months that various news outlets have been reporting on how a British woman’s first novel, published out of small press in Australia, had reached the New York Times bestseller list. Indeed, within two months of its being picked up and republished by Vintage Books, its sales exceeded ten million copies.
How did 50 Shades of Grey – a tale about a young woman submitting to the will and painful discipline of a wealthy Adonis – attract such a following? For whatever reason, the phenomena of sadomasochism, dominance and submission, and other forms of sexual kink were now seemingly becoming mainstream.
Actually, it should not have surprised anyone. A year before that, Rihanna’s song "S&M" peaked at number two on the Billboard hit charts. In 2002, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader starred in the kinky love story Secretary. Around the same time that movie was released, viewers of the hit show CSI were introduced to the dominatrix Lady Heather, who would appear in six episodes through the series, and develop a complicated relationship with its main character Gil Grissom.
But these are fictional performances, barely scratching the surface of reality. Given our mainstream media’s penchant for sensationalizing the unusual, those of us who are part of the BDSM community find ourselves living a paradox, where more people know about us and our sexuality, but myths and misconceptions still abound.
And, like it or not, this is a challenge for Unitarian Universalists, just as homosexuality was in the late 1960’s. Should UUs and other religious progressives merely accept mainstream presumptions, or question those presumptions and seek to learn more? Both our principles and our history call for us to engage in a deeper search for truth, and to overcome the prejudices of the past.
Let’s start by understand the umbrella term BDSM, itself a combination of three acronyms:
- B/D for “bondage and discipline,” the use of physical or psychological restraint in an erotic context;
- D/s for “Dominance and submission,” also known as consensual power exchange; and
- S/M for “sadomasochism,” where pain or other intense stimuli are used to enhance sexual pleasure – pain, but not necessarily injury, and certainly not serious injury.
BDSM covers a wide spectrum of expression, practiced by a diverse community. Some may like what others find painful, others do not. Some identify as “dominant” or “submissive,” others are “switches” alternating between the two, and still others refuse to embrace any fixed role. And that’s just for starters!
This community has its own lingo, cultural symbols and ethical standards. The most common expression for this BDSM ethic is “safe, sane and consensual.” We develop skills and take precautions to minimize the risks of injury, much like rock climbers do; we also make sure everyone involved is in a proper frame of mind; and we take steps to communicate and understand what everyone involved will do together.
Another parallel between BDSM and sports like rock climbing is that people outside of these communities often wonder: “Why do they do it?” Well, the reasons are as diverse as the range of erotic expression – or other activity – that’s out there. The best summation I can give you is that we kinksters explore the delicate balance of risk, trust, intensity and intimacy – a balance within which many of us find a deeply spiritual aspect, what Justin Tanis refers to as “ecstatic communion”.
Still, even with these parallels to such activities, BDSM is nowhere near as tolerated. How many of you out there enjoy sushi, even just occasionally? [several hands go up] Wow, a full house! Now imagine that you travel to an area where eating raw fish is considered unhealthy, even dangerous, and people like you who enjoy this delicacy are looked upon as disturbed or sick. Just mentioning that you’ve tried sushi could cause you to lose friends or hurt your career; doctors can even refuse to treat you because they consider sushi eating a “high-risk activity.” Sushi restaurants would be banned, and few places would sell recipe books, raw ingredients like nori and wasabi, bamboo mats for rolling maki, and so forth. Making sushi for yourself at home might be tolerated, so long as you didn’t tell anyone about it, but having friends over for a sushi party runs the risk of being raided by the police for violating public health laws, in spite of any precautions you take to assure the health and safety of your guests.
Imagine you and your sushi-loving friends living with a sense of isolation and dread. Imagine trying to explain to others that this is safe, that what you choose to eat is your own business, that psychologists can show that you’re no more sick than non-sushi people, but to no avail. Imagine wondering who around you is like you, or at least willing to listen.
Friends, what I’ve just described is what many of us kinksters go through. We’re put in the bind of being told to “keep this private,” while living with the fear of what could happen if our privacy is violated. And so, I’ve decided to take a risk – to open myself up to you, and to field your questions. That is the next step on this journey of understanding and change.
[The sermon was followed by a "talk-back" session with a number of comments and questions, from what vanilla allies could do about discrimination, to questions about identity.]