Hey, this room is full of elephants!

Playing on the edge cover

Playing on the edge – Sadomasochism, risk and intimacy

Staci Newmahr
Indiana University Press, 2011
$ 24.95
244 pages
Language: English
Isbn: 978-0253222855
@: publisher’s website

Generally speaking, only three types of people write about erotic domination: psychologists and psychiatrists dealing only with its pathological forms; researchers working with statistically insignificant populations or focusing on one single aspect of it; uncritical BDSM enthusiasts who just want to teach you every little trick they know. Unfortunately, none of these groups can see the whole picture of an extremely vast and complex cultural phenomenon. In most cases this leads to an incomplete information, and in the last of the three to a sort of defensive blindness to the not-so-good sides of an otherwise great form of sexuality.
Then once in a while comes an outsider whose innocent, unprejudiced view can shake the foundations of the whole topic like an earthquake. This is, at the least, the effect this book of Dr. Newmahr had with me. You see, being an ethnographer she approached the Washington area BDSM community as she would with a strange native culture: as open-minded as possible, but also ready to record and study any unspoken issue along with its positive aspects. And she sure did. Like, from the very start.

To make things clear it is important to note that Playing on the edge examines only one part of the BDSM population: the non-professional, semipublic, mostly heterosexual, urban, north American slice. This is however a very important sample as it is the most vocal and that who somehow shape the public perception of extreme eroticism through events, online writing and general activism. They are “the Scene” and, strangely, the population less studied by previous research. In other words, they are the people you are going to meet first should you search for ‘BDSM in my town’ on Google. If you ever did and chose to actually go to one of their events, you also know what the author thought when she took her first step in this culture: «boy, aren’t they weird
Nobody in the scene will admit it, but we sure are – and we were even more in the years past, when BDSM was more of an underground thing. «It was like entering the cantina from Star wars» gasped an outspoken friend of mine, referring to the unusual number of persons she met who were abnormally fat or thin, who didn’t make eye contact or appeared unsettlingly friendly from the first moment. Kinksters are very good at accepting diversity and after a while they don’t even notice the improbable number of uncommon tracts, but they are a fact, so Newmahr began by studying why it is so.

I found this part of the book the most interesting, as nobody ever addresses the phenomenon and the candid conclusions are great food for thought. Turns out that the public BDSM scene is in fact mostly composed by social outsiders, who approach it out of their superior curiosity toward “otherness” or in search of a safe haven from social norms they can’t or won’t fit. Many participants have cornered themselves into a self-image of marginality (often they describe themselves as ‘geeks’) and they found solace in the intellectual stimuli and immediate acceptance of the community. BDSM becomes the apparent bond between vastly different members who often don’t have a social reputation or conventional jobs requiring them to conform to “normal” appearances – so they simply don’t.
Not conforming to traditional social roles also means not being obsessed with sexual roles. Another major insight is how in BDSM gender isn’t central, but it is something which is applied onto the dominant or submissive identity – the real focus of the community. As a consequence it is finally possible to see how erotic domination is a transgression of many limits: social, psychological, personal and sensorial. This leads to the heart of the matter: what are the true boundaries, or edges, of BDSM?

This part is a slightly less unusual study of play dynamics, yet here and there Newmahr comes up with brief, lucid definitions that would benefit immensely the discussion of the topic. In this context, in example, pain is noted not to be something that “happens”, but a very specific thing that is offered and that you can choose whether to accept or not. This completely changes how the sensation is experienced, also erasing any suspect of violence.
Talking about violence, the author denounces another elephant in the room: even kinksters struggle to accept that sex and power imbalance can coexist. How many times have we heard how  «sex and BDSM are two separate things», despite every evidence of the contrary? In fact according to Playing on the edge sex, ascetism, cosmetic surgery, contact sports and violence are all part of a continuum that should be recognized by science in order to allow a meaningful, interdisciplinary study.

Is this a bit too difficult for you? Too unpleasant? In this case, one final insight might be of help. After much study of the data and of her own experience, Newmahr concludes that BDSM is not sex but intimacy, and it is not violence but trust. And for once, really knowing why it is so can definitely change your game.