<Book Review>
Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
Margot Weiss
[Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011. (336 pp.) ]

In Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Margot Weiss attempts to find a middle ground between previous studies of BDSM culture which have either lauded it as a transgressive and utopian practice or denigrated it as merely another show of excess and consumerism by the (white, heterosexual) upper-middle class. Weiss argues that both of these positions are too simple, and claims instead that, “BDSM creates a circuit between self-mastery, technical expertise, and community belonging” (12). By theorizing BDSM as a practice which functions as a circuit re-instantiating capitalism via performance, Weiss is able to shine a light on the complex nature of BDSM and its relationship to the larger capitalist culture, even for those who practice it. Because Weiss ties her ethnographic research to theoretical grounding in sexuality, race, gender, performance, and neoliberalism, the book is relevant to scholars from a variety of disciplines, and serves as a relatively well-balanced ethnographic investigation of the implications of subcultural movements and the importance of including sexuality in any consideration of late capitalist culture.

Weiss’ theorization of BDSM is based on ethnographic research she performed in the San Francisco Bay area—the purported birthplace of BDSM culture and practice. And while the book includes the voices and experiences of both interviewees and Weiss herself as a participant-observer, the resulting argument is more heavily theoretical than one would expect an ethnographic study to be. Weiss admits that her ethnographic method is meant to ultimately “[highlight] the modes of subjectivity, the political and economic rationalities, and the cultural and community formations that make up everyday dimensions of social power in the contemporary United States” (30). But this argument could have been strengthened by the inclusion of more—and more varieties of—voices from within the BDSM community itself, as the same individuals were often quoted in multiple chapters.

Weiss begins by providing a history of San Francisco’s BDSM culture, exploring how this area in particular has historical ties to a certain type of consumer culture which influenced both the birth of BDSM in the gay subculture of the 1960s and its resurgence as a more strongly heterosexual or pansexual practice in the 1980s-90s. By investigating “how the new BDSM community developed in relationship with—not just in the context of—economic changes in San Francisco and Silicon Valley,” Weiss is able to highlight the interdependence between BDSM practitioners and the structures of capitalism without essentializing BSDM practice to the toys, clothes, and other accoutrements its practitioners often purchase (35). Interrogating cultural developments in the San Francisco Bay area also allows Weiss to investigate how issues of race, class, and gender are re-played out in this largely white and upper-middle class BDSM community, thereby exposing the limits of its transgressive capabilities.

Next, Weiss explores what it means to be a practitioner of BDSM, including the rules and regulations that are constantly debated in an attempt to keep play “safe.” She argues that “the production, regulation, and control of safety and risk produce SM practitioners and further reinforce the kinds of people—white, professional, suburban—who find a home in this SM community” (70). But Weiss refuses view BDSM as a monolithic practice, going on to affirm that “The rules provide a social structure, a scaffolding, within which people cultivate their own ways of being practitioners with—and against—the rules” (85). By placing the community within its particular historical and political timeframe, Weiss is able to examine not only what the community does, but why, exposing the larger cultural forces which shape and inform our actions in the everyday.

Moving forward, Weiss explores the physicality and corporeality of BDSM, “focus[ing] on the exchanges between bodies, subjects, techne, and toys,” and ultimately arguing that “these circuits produce a body in play: a body that is simultaneously divided into parts and extended through objects, both produced and transformed through consumption” (104). In this chapter especially, Weiss’ focus on the Silicone Valley BDSM community limits her argument’s ability to apply to the BDSM community more broadly-speaking. For while Weiss alludes to the Internet as an important avenue of education and connection for BDSM practitioners, she does not interrogate fully the ways that BDSM figured as consumer sexuality would not be as strongly applicable in less affluent areas of the country. It is in the attempt to extrapolate her data to the BDSM community as a whole that Weiss’ argument is most found wanting, and she would do better to limit her analysis of BDSM to the San Francisco Bay area, rather than attempting to theorize “new BDSM” as a whole.

In the next chapter, Weiss deals more closely with the relationship between sexuality and capitalism—and especially the tension white, male practitioners of BDSM feel when their social privilege butts up against the purportedly transgressive space of BDSM practice. Weiss argues that while “SM is figured as outlaw….SM is dependent on social norms: practitioners draw on social hierarchies to produce SM scenes, just as such norms performatively produce subjects” (145). Here, Weiss argues that while the power exchange in BDSM might be figured as role-play, scenes which draw their referents from the “real” world of power have the strongest impact on both participants and voyeurs. In this way, Weiss is able to challenge the myth that places BDSM—and sexuality more generally—in the “private” realm. She grapples with the tension that allows BDSM to be both “Bracketed from the real (just for play) but also based on and recreating the real,” arguing that “SM play creates a circuit in which the scene is first set apart and marked as safe, not real—and then, in play, becomes real, in the sense of authentic and transforming” (153). Weiss also makes it clear that BDSM practitioners also struggle with these ambiguities, not wanting to feel their sexual “play” is reaffirming the worst of racial and gender stereotypes, yet many rectify their own guilt by relating to BDSM as a “private” sexual practice.

Weiss ends her book with a study of what, if any, real effects BDSM play could have on the racial and gendered landscape of social power in Western culture. She explores the theoretical implications of BDSM scenes based on the African slave trade, Nazi experiments, and the more recent torture at Abu Ghraib. By refusing to back down from the tensions and ambiguities inherent in BDSM practice, it is here that Weiss does some of her best analytical work, posing questions that serve to make her book the beginning of a conversation, rather than the final word. Weiss argues, “Race and ethnicity, as well as gender, are hot buttons or triggers because they are central conduits between the affective/subjective and the social/structural/national” (216). It is precisely the importance of issues of race and gender in our society today which both feeds the erotic potential of BDSM scenes built around these signifiers and creates the possibility that such scenes will serve only to further instantiate current power relations in our society.

The question Weiss ultimately poses, then, is whether or not it is possible for the circuit BDSM creates to be extended beyond the private world of sexuality, and into the public world of power, challenging or at least highlighting the power dynamics from which the erotic fodder for BDSM scenes is ultimately drawn. Can the performance of power in BDSM produce radical changes in the status quo—or, in Weiss’ words, “connect an individual’s self-making project with the social responsibility we all share” (219)?

This isn’t a question Weiss makes any attempt to answer, especially as much of the potential force for change located within BDSM is in the hands of the practitioners themselves, and they ways they choose to negotiate and interpret their play. At the end of the book, Weiss places the ball strongly in the other court, asserting, “The task for audiences, readers, and critics is to attend to our involvement, our affective responses, our investment in the study—and the politicization—of sexuality… [to] understand sexuality as a social relation…not an escape” (231). By refiguring the performance of BDSM play as an extension of social relations rather than as a private practice distinct from them, Weiss is able to figure BDSM practice in all its tension, ambiguity, and complexity. This makes it an excellent case study for any scholars looking to theorize counterpublic communities but avoid the large brush strokes that would paint such communities as simply transgressive or complicit in the larger society, but never both. And while Weiss’ research would speak most strongly to those with an interest in sexuality, any scholar dealing with issues of gendered and racial privilege could find Weiss’ analysis of her interlocutors’ complicated subject-positioning useful. The picture Weiss paints of a series of circuits running both through and between the public and private spheres in late capitalism is certainly intriguing, and if nothing else, the book poses some interesting questions which certainly deserve further investigation.

     — Reviewed by Dana Sayre

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