“Apparatus I and Apparatus II”. By Kasia Lynch.
It’s not even lunchtime and I’m watching a young woman, naked except for nipple clamps, suspended upside down in a dark basement being fucked to the point of squirting orgasm by a dildo rigged to a small engine. I’m on Kink.com, a BDSM pornography production company that runs out of a fourteenth-century Moorish Revival–style armoury in the hip Mission district of San Francisco. Kink.com’s homepage links to the company’s many sites for rope bondage, pissing, water play, public sex, electrocution, lesbian bondage, device bondage and M2F trans porn. It also proudly links to features on the company, published by The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal. Beside these links, kink.com’s mission statement is listed, twice: “to create the most authentic BDSM experiences that foster community and empower people to explore their sexuality.”
If you want know more about this mission, visit behindkink.com, where Bonnie Rotten, a bubbly, tattooed girl next door speaks about her first taste of the bondage scene. She was at a local party. A girl was saran-wrapped to the ceiling while revellers applied an industrial-strength vibrator to her cunt and “did forced orgasms” until she was, like, squirting everywhere, it was so cool and fun. Bonnie knew she wanted in. The interview is spliced with her first shoots for Device Bondage, back when she had her old tits and wouldn’t even take a finger in her anus, which is, like, so funny to think about now.
PULL QUOTE: As far as hardcore pornography companies go, Kink.com has a middle-class seal of approval.
As far as hardcore pornography companies go, Kink.com has a middle-class seal of approval. James Franco is rumoured to be making a documentary on the company. Two of their stable models, James Deen and Sasha Grey, have crossed over to make pretty terrible indie films with only slightly overrated directors. The armoury’s drill court (a part of the building usually devoid of gangbangs and wrestling-cum-fisting matches) has become a venue for farmer’s markets and community events. Last year, the National Theatre mounted a sell-out production there. Kink’s company journey is a neat metaphor to support a claim that the once perverse or deviant BDSM subculture has staked a claim in the mainstream.
This, of course, is partly to do with the Internet. If you want to know what the Internet is for, it’s for pornography. We are so aware of it that we have begun to refer to non-sexual images as porn too, hence food-porn, ruin-porn, shoe-porn etc. On social networking and photo-sharing sites, we make our own life-porn and self-porn. We commonly admit that the denomination ‘porn’ refers to any image with no real meaning beyond its status as desired. Porn is designed to be gratuitously consumed and disposed of. But is that too flip an assumption?
Kink.com and its net-porn rivals are just one example of a broad trend toward sadomasochism that I’ve noticed over the past decade. I watched Twilight between the lines and got the message that physical pain, submission and sacrifice are the key to a heightened sensual realm, if not eternal life. I didn’t read 50 Shades of Grey but, like, I feel like I did. It’s not a new genre by any stretch but it does seem to be gaining popularity. Cosmopolitan magazines are filled with rough sex confessionals – lifestyle journos admitting their ‘dark’ desires. Popular TV shows like Scrubs have slapstick sex scenes with women begging to be slapped in the kisser during intercourse. Pop divas like Rhianna scream out to their daddies and proclaim how whips and chains excite them.
Don’t fret. This observation is not a foundation on which to lay a moral schema for arousal. I am, to use an awkward phrase, a sex-positive feminist; I like to have sex, to think and talk about sex, and to consume sex without having to assign to each action a political or moral value. I feel entitled to enjoy my own body, and the culture it relates to as I see fit. I feel entitled to enjoy (Shock! Horror!) both patriarchy and capitalism as best I can, given the restrictions of race, class, gender and those nagging proclivities toward guilt, unease, empathy and rebellion.
PULL QUOTE: I believe we need to ask some questions about the BDSM renaissance.
This said, I believe we need to ask some questions about the BDSM renaissance. We need to think beyond the sex-positive passer-by asserting the right to fuck against anti-porn activists asserting patriarchal hate crimes – shit is more nuanced. As we wander through a world increasingly saturated with these kinds of images and narratives, are we becoming a community empowered to explore our sexuality, or are we exploring something else entirely?
Chris Kraus writes about her own experiences with BDSM in several of her books. In Video Green, a collection on the LA art world, she waxes nostalgic for her earlier life making experimental theatre in New York. “The only experience that comes close to the totalising effects of theatre now is sadomasochism,” she writes. Her drifty, lost, inured-unto-numbness life in LA is given hard edges by her SM encounters with various net-doms. She describes kneeling by her door in crotchless panties, fretting over a dish of melting ice that a dude named Jeigh demanded she have ready. She waits for him to drive through LA traffic to top her with his clichés and his dick. She writes about the disappointing realities of setting up a scene with a suburban master who criticises her $300 hair and fails to come through with the fantasy he so ardently described for her. Her sadomasochistic play becomes an attempt to understand people and the world around her and her real masochistic outcomes often have little to do with fucking.
For Kraus, being a writer allows her to take more than would otherwise be available. In her writing she gets close to a sense I have about sadomasochism and capitalism. That is, here in late capitalism, stuck in freeway traffic between billboards, strip-malls and the steady heartbeat of your flashing GPS location, sometimes the mind yearns for a slap across the face to bring you back from the brink of hysteria, back to some long crumbled solid ground. In this conception, SM can be framed as a way of taking ownership of pain and powerlessness, of exploiting it all to the point of orgasm. Getting kicks.
Freud identified sadomasochism as one of the most common perversions, right up there with ‘inversion’ (homosexuality). For Freud, a degree of aggressive cruelty in men was natural, but it might become over-emphasised to the point of sadism if something went wrong in the infant’s development, like with a bad mother, or presumably, in the case of a female, if shit goes awry somewhere between Oedipus and penis envy. Masochism, in his conception, was more diffuse. It was most likely a symptom of the initial aggression. For example it could be the sadistic impulse turned inward or it could be a manifestation of guilty feelings. In any case, for Freud it was pathological, a term at odds with any notion of freedom of exploration.
One of my favourite films about sadomasochism is The Piano Teacher (2001), Michael Haneke’s portrait of Erika, a renowned Austrian concert pianist who lives a disciplined, repressed life broken only by small and wilful sexual transgressions. Erika spends her days teaching upper-class neurotics to play Shubert, spending her evenings engaging in her elaborate, autoerotic, sadomasochistic sex-life, and her nights slumbering beside her overbearing and volatile mother. It’s a bad romance.
PULL QUOTE: You can hear Dr Freud tapping his pencil enthusiastically in the subtext.
Erika’s sexuality is intellectualised. She holds an observer’s pretence to distance, practices sex in small rituals – tiny cuts in the labia, a sperm-soaked tissue to sniff at the adult cinema, feeling her pee sting her sliced-up cunt as she watches a couple at the drive-in through their car window. Her painful self-sufficiency is disturbed when a young man pledges his love to her, forcing her to try to realise an unrealisable fantasy. Erika puts all her forbidden desires in a letter for this young man. “Hit me in the face, often,” she writes. “Tie me up in my room with my mother outside […] Don’t worry about my mother, she’s my problem.” Unfortunately, fantasy crumbles on impact with reality. The young man hits Erika but somehow it doesn’t feel right. He leaves her weeping on the floor, wearing a split lip and a dowdy nightgown. Isn’t this what she wanted? She loses it and smothers her mother in the dark – she presses her hand up the maternal skirt. “I love you,” she gasps to her mother. You can hear Dr Freud tapping his pencil enthusiastically in the subtext.
In some ways The Piano Teacher is an old-fashioned vision of sadomasochism. It’s uncomfortable. Haneke gives us a non-judgemental portrait of a woman’s pathology wrought by maternal torment, a culture of competition, and the fetishism of structure and perfection that underpins classical music. Erika’s sexuality is a response. It’s not an adventure. It’s an emergency escape plan.
Like the Marquis de Sade, from whose name we derive the term ‘sadism’, Erika discovers that she cannot reconcile her social existence with her personal desire. Also like de Sade, she attempts, unsuccessfully, to derive from her sexuality both an ethic and an escape from the punishing world she lives in. In the end though, she’s the only one who can dole out the right measure of brutality.
The story of The Piano Teacher is at odds with our post-perversity sexual language. Today all is ‘play’, safe words and whatever between consenting adults – though the idea of consent itself is, of course, based on assumptions about where free will and desire come from. Radical feminists of the anti-porn persuasion make the point that you don’t like what you think you like, you like what you are told to like. It’s a compelling assertion, but it’s also beside the point. We live here, in this place that makes us. We’ll take what we can get.
PULL QUOTE: The story of The Piano Teacher is at odds with our post-perversity sexual language.
Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter portrays a sadomasochistic relationship that is a direct result of state power. Set after the end of WW II, the film follows a surprise reunion between Max, an ex SS officer now working in a hotel and Lucia, a Jewish girl, now grown into an American woman. At one time, Lucia had been the object of Max’s sadomasochistic sexual obsessions. Flashbacks to the days of dirty dancing and bondage in the concentration camp foreshadow a rekindling of the couple’s master–slave relationship that can lead only to destruction. It’s the art film that inspired decades of nazisploitation films.
In The Night Porter the rise of the totalitarian state, culminating in the horrors of the Nazi death camp, structures the sexuality of Max and Lucia. The film doesn’t give us details of their infancy so we can’t pathologise them outside of the their construction in the rubric of the Third Reich. Would Max have been the power-hungry, deranged sadist if the Nazi party had not put the home-movie camera and the power of the SS into his hands? Would Lucia have grown up with masochistic fantasies if she hadn’t been born a Jew in Austria, and then, in adolescence, managed to obtain a degree of power through her status as a sexual object for an older SS guard? In either case, what they achieve in their relationship, both with each other and with Nazism, is a level of intensity that they can’t recover from.
What the film literalises (and sexualises) is the connection between state power and the formation of identity. We develop not simply in relation to our parents, our culture and society – we develop in relation to the way that power constructs these things. Max is not Lucia’s master, not really. In fact the sexual master is the totalitarian state that has them both fucked and bound. Viewing The Night Porter today leads us inevitably to raise the question: if Nazism is the backdrop for the development of Max and Lucia’s sadomasochistic death drive, what kind of sex-trip are we on at this BDSM-saturated moment in late capitalism? You could start to answer this question at the library, or you could just ask Bonnie Rotten.
For Freud, civilisation depends on the continual repression of our infant desires and instincts. In other words, we do not become those inhuman, unthinkable figures, we become human participants in civilisation instead. Late capitalism, consumerism, the Internet, ‘liberal democracy’ all purport to contribute to a world in which nothing needs to be repressed. No latent desire or drive needs to remain sublimated or unexplored. There are places, spaces and scenes for everything. These days, we believe that repression is the responsibility of the individual; it’s what happens when you don’t participate, when you ignore the necessity of shopping and ‘making community’. Framed this way, porn is a social responsibility.
PULL QUOTE: Life is that moment after the money-shot when everyone pauses to help wipe the cum from the eyeball.
The only thing repressed in porn is the interminable continuity of existence. Its slowness is edited out. Life is that moment after the money-shot when everyone pauses to help wipe the cum from the eyeball. Time is waved away like an unwanted Tinder candidate. Reality (or perhaps more poignantly, imagination) is the repressed object and the repressed desire. Wanting something ‘for real’ is replaced with wanting a totalising theatre; a theatre so total that the reality of human trafficking is rendered beside-the-point in a Kink.com porn set-up captioned “Russian Mail Order Bride forced to be a sex slave for her husband’s friends.”
Freud said that fetishism was particularly impressive when the fetish surpassed the activity, that is, the sexualised object no longer has much to do with actual sex (and Freud of course, had a fairly narrow definition of what that meant). I mention this now because in porn (and often in ‘real’ cinema), or at least the porn that I am talking about, power is a fetish. Power is objectified and worshiped. Power is sexualised beyond the bodies fucking, pissing, nude-wrestling or being locked into the stocks. The appeal of power-as-fetish lies in the indeterminate, immaterial way we experience power in our lives.
Real power can’t be filmed and it certainly can’t be fucked with a strap-on or given a golden shower. Is our power fetish a hidden wish for the good old days of delineable power structures that privilege the human over the non-human, men over women, majority over minority, strong over weak, empire over all? Is our fetish the dying gasp of patriarchy, like the horniness that comes with the hangover from a terrible bender? Or is sadomasochism just a parody of the various power relations that make up civilisation, a blue Punch and Judy show on the history of civilisation? It’s worth pointing out that de Sade was, above all, a parodist. Of course, he hated his mother too, but isn’t all this just a question of emphasis?
PULL QUOTE: What then does our filth reveal?
In de Sade’s writing, cruelty and filth reveal the world. What then does our filth reveal? By de Sade’s philosophy, whips and chains excite because they have the power to change a man into a thing. The only purer act than sexual cruelty is murder. He believed that all deviant sexual energy builds to murder. It’s a trajectory we can compare to the way our endless drive for porn and shopping appears to converge on ecstatic collective annihilation. In fact, given the allure of our apocalyptic drive, I wonder if de Sade would be as interested in localised acts of cruelty today. I wonder if cruelty (now reclaimed and tamed; the BDSM community) would still seem radical in a world of global networks and WMDs.
Simone de Beauvoir had a different reading of de Sade, one that is anarchic in its levelling of both the creative and destructive impulse. For her it was not murder that was the pinnacle of de Sade’s erotic drive, rather, it was literature. This is a handy point on which to end this column for a sex-themed literature journal. Because if we transplant de Beauvoir’s reading and mash it onto power-fetish porn and the sadomasochistic narratives that we buy for our little sisters, what we are left with is an exhausted literature. We no longer care about its meaning or relevance. We only want to keep writing it. We write, we fuck in the manner the anorexic starves and this is as valid a stance as any. We are just playing, right? We know our safe words. Reality is not the thing we want to repress, it’s just what we need so badly to transcend.
An incomplete version of this piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #21, The Sex Issue. Buy your copy now!