Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon

December 13, 2012

BDSM (the compound acronym denoting the practices of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) seems to be everywhere these days. The unprecedented and unlikely popularity of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has moved discussions of slave contracts and floggers out of the closed realms of alt subcultures and academic sexuality studies and into the mainstream. Given the woeful inaccuracies and problems of Fifty Shades, the fact that it is currently the go-to resource for the curious but uninitiated potential kinkster makes it crucial that books offering careful sociological, anthropological, gender-political and theoretical accounts of BDSM communities and practices continue to be published.

Danielle Lindemann’s Dominatrix contributes to a growing list of recent ethnographic titles on the subject. Notable precedents are Staci Newmahr’s Playing on the Edge (2011) and Margot Weiss’ Techniques of Pleasure (2012), both of which discuss BDSM communities and scenes (heterosexual, homosexual and pansexual) that flourish in and around San Francisco and explore the political and psychological meanings of the fantasies and practices played out there. Lindemann’s book similarly takes San Francisco as one of its two fieldwork locations (the other being New York) but shifts the focus away from the dynamics of BDSM communities in their multiple manifestations and on to the specific experiences of professional dominatrices (“pro-dommes”) and their relationships with (mostly) male paying clients. These relationships are characterised variously as therapeutic encounters, as opportunities for erotic expression, and as scenes of gendered “tension” and “struggle”.

Lindemann’s central premise is that it is strategically valuable to demystify this often-stigmatised relationship and to see its dynamics as instructive to understanding broader currents in gendered social interaction and labour practices. This strategy is eminently “queer”, where this term is not to be understood as synonymous with LGBT politics but rather as intimately concerned with disturbing the hegemony of the (white, economically privileged, monogamous, heteronormative) centre and with viewing social and sexual phenomena from a marginal position. She posits that the players in the commercial BDSM scene literalise unconventional forms of masculine and feminine comportment and desire that are typically hidden, foreclosed, or seen only through a “foggy window” in mainstream culture and everyday life.

Her interviews with pro-dommes make for fascinating and insightful reading. They corroborate Lindemann’s persuasive argument that relationships between pro-dommes and clients are more nuanced, ambivalent and troubled than would at first appear likely. The relationship may be seen as both subversive of gender norms (since the woman is, in the most literal way, “on top” in this scenario) and yet, at the same time, as depressingly conservative (since female sexual labour is exchanged for male spending power, mirroring exactly the structural economic dynamic inherent in the less well-paid forms of prostitution engaged in by the vulnerable and disenfranchised).

The analytical strength and conceptual originality of this book lie in the way in which it balances a refusal to accept simple, binary commonplaces about what gendered power looks like and where it resides with a broader commitment to (queer) social justice. It is also valuable in debunking the exoticism of the world depicted and in showing that professional BDSM is not entirely remote and other but rather “normal” and “mundane”. Any reader interested in an intelligent critique of the myriad workings of power underlying gender and sexuality relations in our contemporary, still overwhelmingly heteronormative, world could do no better than to pick up a copy of Dominatrix.

Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the DungeonDominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon

By Danielle J. Lindemann

University of Chicago Press

256pp, £55.00 and £18.00

ISBN 9780226482569 and 82583

Published 7 November 2012

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