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Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy

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Representations of consensual sadomasochism range from the dark, seedy undergrounds of crime thrillers to the fetishized pornographic images of sitcoms and erotica. In this pathbreaking book, ethnographer Staci Newmahr delves into the social space of a public, pansexual SM community to understand sadomasochism from the inside out. Based on four years of in-depth and immersive participant observation, she juxtaposes her experiences in the field with the life stories of community members, providing a richly detailed portrait of SM as a social space in which experiences of "violence" intersect with experiences of the erotic. She shows that SM is a recreational and deeply gendered risk-taking endeavor, through which participants negotiate boundaries between chaos and order. Playing on the Edge challenges our assumptions about sadomasochism, sexuality, eroticism, and emotional experience, exploring what we mean by intimacy, and how, exactly, we achieve it.

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Introduction

ePub

The warehouses on the street had been closed for hours. Taxis thumped down the pothole-plagued city block. Rap music blasted from a nearby nightclub. I locked my Club onto the steering wheel of my car, double-checked the parking sign, and headed down the street. The pavement glittered under my boots, embedded glass reflecting the reassuring lamplight in this downtown district. Halfway down the block, I stopped at a brick wall. I parted the dirty clear plastic vertical blinds that obscured the threshold, and walked inside. A tall, thin, disheveled man was perched on a stool just inside the unlabeled doorway. He nodded at me as I entered.

The walls were gray concrete. Black stage lights lined the floor of the dark hallway. High along one wall, swirly, high-school girl handwriting welcomed me to “The Playground” in enthusiastic romantic loops. The bass of techno music lent rhythm to the muffled sound of party chatter below. I walked down the winding stairway at the end of the hall. Lorraine sat at the window before the heavy steel entrance to the club. Recognizing me, she smiled warmly and said, “Free for the lady.”

 

1. Defiance: Bodies, Minds, and Marginality

ePub

Bodies, Minds, and Marginality

It was the last committee meeting. Tomorrow was the big event. We had rented three floors of a large hotel. One floor was going to be devoted to educational classes throughout the weekend. One floor was going to be devoted to vendors of SM and fetish products, and one floor was to be the dungeon. It was being designed and set up by a man who owned an SM club in another city. I had heard very good things about his work.

It had taken seven months of almost weekly meetings, several hours each. And the IMs and the emails. God, the emails. Seven months of general snippiness and petty arguments. Seven months of asking Noah to relax and imploring Amy to be nice, and trying very hard not to tell everyone to stop acting like the rise and fall of civilization was entirely wrapped up in this event.

The communication was abominable. At each and every meeting lately, I found myself wondering why everyone was so snotty. Was I the only one who noticed? How did they get away with talking to people like this? All of it was driving me nuts: the tension, the drama…the body odor.

 

2. Geeks and Freaks: Marginal Identity and Community

ePub

Marginal Identity and Community

In celebration of Raven's birthday, several of us were meeting at a restaurant in the vicinity of the club before the Horizons party. When I arrived at seven o'clock, twelve people were already seated. I waved to everyone and went to sit beside Elise, who jumped up to hug me as I approached. Four more people entered before we ordered.

The place was busy, and the din made it difficult to hear each other. It was not our usual spot. The wait staff seemed slightly contemptuous, perhaps noting the preponderance of black leather—or the popularity of the fettuccine alfredo dish with extra garlic bread—in this particular crowd.

At 8:30, the four of us who were scheduled to set up for the party prepared to head out. As we each rounded the table to give individual hugs to people we would see again in approximately ninety minutes, Sheryl stood up and yelled, “Wait! Wait! I won't be there!” and rushed all of us to give a proper good-bye.

 

3. Tipping the Scales: Striving for Imbalance

ePub

Striving for Imbalance

I stood facing him, trying to keep my abraded back from brushing against the rough concrete wall. I was exhausted. We'd been playing for a long time; it must have been at least two hours. I think he used just about every toy he owned. My legs were stiff. My arms ached from straining against the cuffs. I was depleted from the scene, ready to go home and crawl into bed.

He set his flogger on the table beside him. He moved close to me and stroked my hair.

“How ya doin'?” he asked softly.

“Good…,” I responded, “…sleepy.” I smiled and he laughed at me.

“What?” I asked, half-dazed.

Mimicking me, Adam smiled—a wide, spacey, extremely goofy grin.

“Here, let me get that,” he said, miming wiping drool from my chin.

I laughed. He laughed.

Then he hit me, open-handed, across my left cheek, probably about as hard as I had ever been hit. My face swung toward the wall.

 

4. Fringe Benefits: The Rewards of SM Play

ePub

The Rewards of SM Play

For the first time, I had the chance to wander around the dungeon at leisure. It really was beautifully done—high-quality equipment and great lighting, bright but not institutional. Strands of decorative lights cordoned off “Singletail Alley,” where there was ample room for throwing eight-foot whips. An elaborate rope-pulley-cage was set up on one end of the room.

It was packed, and with a lot of well-known people; a lot of serious players. We'd all heard for months about who would be there, and of course I knew the program lineup. Most of them were from elsewhere in the country, and I hadn't met them. It was intimidating—not the crowd in front of which I usually played. I was hopelessly exhausted anyway, and had made no plans for the night.

While I was taking in the scenes, Trey meandered over to me. We chatted for a bit and then he said, “Okay, I'm going to wander around…or maybe I'll just come back here and put stripes on you.”

 

5. Badasses, Servants, and Martyrs: Gender Performances

ePub

Gender Performances

Two hours before the costume party at the Playground, I still hadn't found an outfit. I'd heard that this was a busy event and I knew I could be meeting a lot of new people. I didn't want to be something cutesy or submissive, but since I was still fairly new to the scene, I also didn't want to stand out.

I rummaged through my closet and chose a copper-colored crinoline ball skirt and a brown lace-up peasant top with poufy sleeves. I folded a white linen sheet, doubled it over the skirt, and fastened it like an apron. I piled my hair on top of my head in a loose curly bun and pulled some strands out. Then I shook my head at my reflection. What were they called, these women? Serving girl…bar wench? I sighed, but it would work. When in Rome…

When I pulled my car up in front of Casey's place, she was leaning against the building, drawing a deep breath on a cigarette, a la James Dean. She looked incredibly intimidating for a large, almost-forty-year old woman dressed as Minnie Mouse.

 

6. Reconcilable Differences: Pain, Eroticism, and Violence

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Pain, Eroticism, and Violence

I was sitting cross-legged on a couch in the back of the dungeon, with a paper cup of water in one hand and a rich fistful of Shaun's long, soft hair in the other. As we chatted casually about the success of the party, I tugged gently on his hair from time to time. His eyes were closed, but he looked at me longingly when I yanked his head backward to expose his throat. He moaned. I ran my hand around the base of his throat. I was wondering how he would respond if I laid my hand across his mouth and nose, when Trey approached.

Trey squeezed onto the couch on the other side of me and put his arm around my shoulders. Shaun opened his eyes and asked Trey how many paid admissions we'd had thus far. I gathered more of his hair into my hand and pulled it, hard, drawing from him a deeply satisfying hiss.

Trey didn't know about the attendance and changed the subject to something about a moving brownie—a “brownie in motion.” Shaun chuckled. Trey put his hand in my hair. I put my head on his shoulder.

 

7. Collaborating the Edge: Feminism and Edgework

ePub

Feminism and Edgework

I paced the room nervously, uncharacteristically tidying things that weren't mine and looking for people who weren't there. Perhaps it was the bed; it was strange that I was about to play in a room with a bed. In fact, I realized as I looked around, it seemed likely I was going to play on the bed, since there wasn't much free wall space.

Perhaps it was the fact that we'd just been watching Law and Order reruns and eating Chinese takeout. Or maybe it was the fact that I was wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt; it had seemed silly to get dressed in order to hang out in an apartment.

He walked into the bedroom. I wondered how scenes even begin in a private space. What are the cues? Where are the cuffs? Who's going to laugh with us when funny things happen? Just us?

I followed him into the bedroom.

“It's weird,” I said.

“What is?”

“Being here, playing in private. You don't think it's weird?”

 

8. “What It Is That We Do”: Intimate Edgework

ePub

Intimate Edgework

There was something going on with him tonight, I thought; the look in his eyes was different somehow. One minute we were smiling and laughing as he cuffed me to the wall, and in the very next he smashed me across the face with his open hand.

He picked up the quirt. I hate the quirt. I really hate it. I used to wonder, when bottoms said they hated a particular toy, why they used it. It didn't make any sense. If you don't like it, I thought, don't use it…yet there I was, playing with the quirt again. I swear I hate it. But I love to hate it—it's becoming symbolic now—of contest, of strength, of antagonism, and of the play relationship itself. It's not something I can't take. It doesn't bother me philosophically and it doesn't cause me any harm. And still I say that I hate it.

My back was on fire. I was raw and chafed. He must've drawn blood—it felt like my back was a complete mess. I spun myself away from him, giving him my side instead of my back. Usually, he stops and waits for my back—waits for me to be ready for the next blow. Tonight it didn't matter in the least. He wasn't letting up. He was going to keep swinging, and it would land wherever it landed.

 

Concluding Notes: Erotic Subjectivity and the Construction of the Field

ePub

Erotic Subjectivity and the Construction of the Field

The postmodern view of ethnography as a jointly constructed narrative, rather than an accurate objective depiction of social reality, has gained support in recent years. Despite increasing crossover between the two, questions concerning the role of the ethnographer remain unsettled. In the field and in her writing, what the ethnographer “does” with her feelings, her presence, her narrative, her voice, her body, and her sexuality is a matter of interest for ethnographers across disciplines and intellectual inheritances. At times, the objectives of ethnography themselves are at issue. The disagreements between “realist” (Van Maanen 1988) or “academic” ethnography (Rinehart 1998) and postmodernist ethnographies that have been termed “interpretive” (Denzin 1997), “fictional” (Rinehart 1998), and “evocative” (Anderson 2006a) are not necessarily over the roles of subjectivity and introspection, but over their intentions. Advocates of subjectivity in ethnography have been accused of navel-gazing (Jarvie 1998), and indulging in “a celebration of the personality of the anthropologist” (Ryang 2000). Postmodernist ethnographers have responded with claims that realist ethnographers fail to recognize that “understanding is visceral” (Denzin 1995) and have called analytic ethnography an attempt “to contain, limit, and silence the personal, or the self, in the research context” (Burnier 2006). Some scholars subscribe to the possibility of an integrated approach (Anderson 1999, Lerum 2001) and others have ventured examples of integration, blending personal introspection with conventional analytical approaches (Ronai 1995; Frank 2002). I have endeavored to situate this book in this blended space.

 

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