Transcendent BDSM: the importance of reaching for the moon (part I)

rocket girl vintage pinup

Sometimes one little event can precipitate a series of mental connections that lead to a much-needed closure for several half-formed insights, and possibly to one important intuition. This was the case with the long-gestated thinking described in this post, which however requires a rather extensive context to be fully appreciated. Therefore the resulting article had to be split into two parts. Please bear with me, and I promise it will be worth the read.  

 

I was born in 1969, just as NASA engineers completed the giant rocket that would bring the first humans on the Moon – and as a kid I wanted to become an astronaut like them. There was nothing odd about it: everyone wanted that, simply because everyone was excited and awed by that adventure even many years after mr. Armstrong and crew had came back to Earth. I believe it is impossible to convey the scope of the general enthusiasm: the entire world – including the Unspeakably Evil Empire that had tried to get there first – had witnessed how tens of thousands of people had pooled their best efforts into building the most formidable machine ever, and finally managed to get where literally no man had gone before.
Scientists, engineers, technicians and pilots did it with the help of countless collaborators from every industry, from the guys who had to invent “space food” from scratch to the best American seamstress, chosen to sew the life-saving stitchings on the spacesuits. And even if those times were way before international cooperations, literally everyone’s heart, from anywhere in the world, was with the Apollo 11 crew. The whole planet had a big, grand dream, and it had turned into reality by sheer collective will power.

I clearly remember how, for the next two decades, the simple label ‘space’ was used to make anything –from cheese to high fashion – cooler. People bought into this partly because the downfall from the space program was actually tangible with newfangled plastics, digital watches, fabrics and whatnots, and partly because the moon landings success had confirmed that our collective hopes for the future were right. Today it sounds silly, but we actually used the idiom ‘in the year 2000’ to indicate a bright near-future where science and technology would transform everyone’s life into something marvelous, probably with a Flash Gordon flair. NASA inspired people everywhere to work hard to build that future: pretty much the whole computer revolution was propelled by space geeks for example, and change the world it did.

Until, maybe inevitably, things slowly changed. We realized those jetpacks wouldn’t be coming for a long while yet, and all the moon rocks were just… well, rocks. Minerals that required a scary amount of dollars to be shuttled back to Earth, and when the cheers had faded people began questioning the sense of it all. Weren’t were other, more practical ways to invest all that money? Plastic and pocket calculators were useful, sure, but…
Come January 1986, the Challenger disaster drove the final nail into the coffin of the global infatuation with space exploration. More mundane preoccupations called. Today we have a fucking space station as large as a football field flying over our heads, and people are barely aware of such an incredible feat. In fact, no kid dreams of becoming an astronaut anymore. Reality, risk-awareness, technical issues, concrete needs and limitations conspired to change the narrative, and our dreams with it.

As sad as it sounds, there is nothing inherently wrong with this process. According to Freud and his Theory of Civilization, substituting the juvenile, impulsive drive to self-satisfaction of our innate “pleasure principle” with the sensible maturity of following the “reality principle” and providing for our present and future needs and for our loved ones’ is the basis of civilization itself.

As I said, I was born in 1969. I’m not old, but not a kid anymore either: I have just celebrated 30 years into kink, and during this period I have seen progress enough to notice a similar phenomenon hit BDSM as well. So let me play granpa and explain what I mean.

Before the early 1990s, extreme eroticism had historically being fueled by two ingredients: the natural instinct of any mammal for domination and submission dynamics in every social context, including the sexual one, and fantasy – especially literature. A complex mix of social rules, culture (and lack thereof), religion, perception of the risks connected to sexually transmitted diseases, technology, communication and access to fellow deviants meant that “sadomasochism” was mostly experienced as an imaginary fantasy. Some people got rough with their spouses or with prostitutes, but it looked much closer to violent abuse than to what we today call ‘BDSM’; it is not a coincidence that this latter term didn’t even exist, and erotic play was customarily conflated with mental illness and crime in the view of the general public and of professionals such as judges, psychologists, police and so on.
To our contemporary minds it may sound inconceivable, but in a world where sex toys and kinky tools were almost unheard of and quite crude anyway, the few “S/m domina studios” available in a very small number of large cities were only accessible to a very wealthy and dedicated elite, while the rest of the world had to content itself with dreaming about that kind of stuff only.

For centuries, those dreams had been informed by the most improbable sources, mostly highly intellectual books that used the descriptions of torture and sexual abuse metaphorically, for social criticism purposes but undoubtably to titillate both readers and the writers themselves. It was not uncommon then for people to masturbate over convoluted works such as Mirbeau’s Torture Garden, Bataille’s The Tears of Eros, Kafka’s In the Penal Colony or that evergreen of violence, de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Problem was, these were the same people who wanked off to horrors like the then-rare photographs of early-Nineteenth century tortures and public executions in China.

Badly disguised popular kink fodder only started appearing after World War II in the form of “crime stories” and fumetti neri, in oddly sexualized Nazisploitation movies and romance stories whose pretty protagonists had a queer tendency to somehow end up tied and whipped all the time. These were also the decades where the first proper bondage and domination adult magazines appeared, along with unabashedly submission-oriented erotic novels such as Histoire d’O and its countless clones.
These latter works tended to finally be less violent, but still retained a clearly fantastic quality. Both in Penthouse-like stories and in Pauline Réage’s work, the characters’ lives entirely revolved around BDSM. O moved in a fairytales-like castle for full-time training as a slave; countless “readers’ true story submissions” wove improbable tales of permanent segregation, cutting off any contact with one’s previous life, irreversible brandings and body modification, or at least of obsessive devotion to the dominant partner, in what was, to all extents, a romanticized psychosis.

Just a few days ago, reading Our Lives, Our History, a book about the rise of modern BDSM culture, I stumbled on several interviews where people recalled their amazement and elation when experienced players told them that no, erotic slaves don’t have to “lose all rights” or “forfeit any life beyond serving”. While this makes little sense to our 2017 sensibility, such absolute vision was simply the result of the commonly accepted idea of domination and submission relationships, whose roots were much more deeply embedded in fiction than in any actual experience. Until the late 1970s, the very concept of BDSM as play instead of a full-blown, 24/7 lifestyle was inconceivable to most people simply because they had never encountered such a depiction of it. But things were going to change, and fast.

Come the Eighties, another confluence of factors introduced a new, revolutionary view of kink starting with the United States and rapidly spreading to the rest of the world. A new general affluence, easier communication, social changes and the tragic HIV global epidemy led explorers of extreme eroticism everywhere to get in touch, compare notes, devise safer and more refined ways of playing and to generally found the kind of BDSM culture we know today.
Suddenly there were clubs, educational associations, newfangled concepts like SSC, safewords and empathy during play – better tools for more civilized times that until then had been reserved only to a very small elite of connoisseurs. Hell, this is even when the very word ‘BDSM’ was invented to finally separate good-natured erotic play from evil ‘sadomasochism’!

Widespread access to the Internet was probably the biggest game changer for alternative sexualities. For better and for worse, it facilitated access to kinky knowledge like nothing before, giving rise to actual and priceless BDSM manuals, workshops and more. People could finally learn how to turn their domination fantasies into reality, how to torture their partners without actually harming them, how to perfectly manage the emotional and psychological pitfalls of those games. There is no doubt that this phase represented a much-needed quantum leap that allowed an immense number of persons to come to terms with their desires and stop being scared of themselves, to find similarly-minded people and groups with whom they could really express their deepest nature without fear of judgment, to find support and the opportunity to finally experience their dreams in a healthy way.

Pity this also was when things turned to shit.

[Continues in Part II]

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