by Mary Harrington
Monday, 12
April 2021
Idea
14:26

What’s really behind America’s BDSM craze?

The forbidden yearning for hierarchy is coming out in the bedroom
by Mary Harrington
The rising popularity of BDSM suggests that power itself is increasingly both stigmatised and alluring

Over the weekend the NYT published an investigation into a fetish trend that, in our atomised and hyper-mediated era, seems profoundly apt: ‘findom’, or financial domination, in which people dress in fetish gear and insult their submissives, usually remotely, until they receive gifts of money.

It may come as a surprise that contemptuous online treatment combined with demands for money should be an erotic experience for some, rather than just an everyday experience of contacting customer services. What, then, could prompt those who engage in this to find it so thrilling?

A glance at popular search terms on a porn website (if you can bear it) suggests a strong relationship between shame and eroticisation: the more something is stigmatised, the more drawn to it some will be. In that context, it’s striking that growing numbers (especially of men) should eroticise what amounts in effect to selflessly sharing your resources with another. It suggests that in the age of ‘me, me, me’ the idea of supporting another person unconditionally has become so unthinkable as to acquire an erotic allure.

More generally though, the rising popularity of BDSM suggests that power itself is increasingly both stigmatised and alluring. On the face of it, this seems at odds with a mainstream culture ever more stridently committed to equality, not just of opportunity but even of outcome. The NYT quotes a psychology professor who believes kink functions as a way of getting residual reactionary urges out of your system: “I believe that findom can actually be a really healthy way to manifest the part of human nature that is about power asymmetry and hierarchy”.

Perhaps it makes sense that our egalitarian age should eroticise non-egalitarian relationships. The Marquis de Sade, the founding figure of the modern ‘kink’ subculture, embraced the French Revolution and called himself ‘Citizen Sade’ — all while writing novels that celebrated the erotic pleasure of violence and hierarchy. And in ideological terms, if not economic ones, Americans are the most committed of all to the notion that we are all created equal.

The Declaration of Independence proclaims it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal”. At a foundational level, the idea of America presupposes a flattening of hierarchies. Perhaps non-coincidentally, the ultra-egalitarian Americans are more into BDSM — that is, sexual fetishes predicated on power asymmetry — than any other nation.

From this perspective, those self-righteous contrarians who choose moments of national mourning to call for abolition of what’s left of our monarchy appear in a different light. That is, in practice they’re campaigning not for egalitarianism (constitutional monarchies are, after all, often more genuinely egalitarian than republics) but for individualising power imbalances as a sex thing.

This all invites the question: if BDSM is rooted in semi-repressed longings for asymmetrical social relations, and this is “part of human nature”, why the extra steps? Rather than seeking to ‘normalise’ kink by insisting it’s perfectly fine for kids to encounter, a more honest way to address the underlying yearning might be to accept the necessity of a measure of arbitrary hierarchy in ordinary life. We seem to be going to ever more extreme lengths to make everything egalitarian, only to find those hierarchies we try so hard to eradicate just creep back in, via the bedroom.

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  • Sorry Mary, but there’s no link between kink/BDSM and the strident equality movement.
    If you look closer, you’ll find that true kink/BDSM is all about acceptance&validation, with a pinch of unfettered complicity & closeness. It has existed long before the equality movement, and there’s no real connection to an “equality” movement that is defined by its superficiality.
    As for “financial domination”, I suspect it involves two people with rather different perceptions and mindsets. In stark contrast with kink/BDSM.

  • Well I read this article and have to admit that I wasn’t aroused at all. Well, not in a sexual way but I did feel a twinge over yet another blatant clickbait piece that I thought was outside the remit of this site.

  • I enjoyed this article despite being suspicious of the investigation on which it’s based.
    It appears the author is relying on the results of a NYT investigation and anything coming out of that publication is suspect in my mind. It’s also unclear just how widespread is this alleged interest in BDSM. Maybe it’s still a niche interest among folks who enjoy on-line porn.
    All that aside, I’m not surprised if people’s desire for hierarchy is manifesting in this slightly strange way. Hierarchy is a fact of human society and always has been (we have that in common with all the other apes). The author draws a contrast between this supposedly illicit desire for hierarchy and the recent fixation on ‘equality’ (of opportunity and outcome). But we all know that BLM and similar groups are not really focused on equality. That word is just a tool to promote certain political groups; it is an exercise in power and the imposition of a new hierarchy.
    I’m guessing the interest in BDSM has more to do with lockdown frustration and a reaction against the sense of powerlessness in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government.

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