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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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Mary is a good writer, although sex is high on her list of what matters. I care nothing for this topic, although it seems obvious how neutered 90% of people are by their phones and Netflix, computer games, porn, and pointless work and life, how they are just drones in a box, and so look for something which shows they actually are alive, But….

And sorry for complaining off topic here, But Unherd, how about addressing the actual reality. Humanity is walking a knife edge across an abyss and is unlikely to make it to the other side. At least make it intact. USA is 37$ Trillion in debt with tax revenues which can never pay it back, USA is also the world’s ‘Reserve Currency’ which means USA Treasury Bonds are used to back all the money in all the countries Central Banks in the world. This coupled with automation poised to take a huge portion of the jobs, and thus requiring an ever expanding Government hand out system. The whole world is crowded into a lifeboat built of Dollar Bills, and the water is coming in through the cracks.

So what is coming? I see civil unrest on an almost Civil War level in places if the Gov fails to keep up. The Police shooting in Minnesota yesterday and rioting results, this is all symptomatic in my mind of under employment in the underclasses Community.If Americans had been at work and spending their energies that way, had a bit of earned money, BLM civil unrest never would have happened.

6$ Trillion covid money printed in just USA has all flooded into the stock market making it crazy and un linked to financial reality, 3 more is on its way, a crash is likely, of up to 80% (I am reading ‘The New Great Depression’) Look at Bit coin to see not just irrational exuberance, but how crazy amounts of $ are chasing anything because there are just too many of them to find value investments, so they are going to pure speculation for want of anything better, the real investments already bid too high.

Covid was why I found, and stayed, with Unherd, Post Covid should be where it now is centered.

P.S. Scary looking people demanding money are likely to be a big part of our future, so the above trend is merely anticipating that I guess.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

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.

david Murphy
david Murphy
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

BDSM is a lifestyle for those who like it. It is quite well defined and those who practice know what they are about. Then you get the wannabes and curious who read 50 shades (most NBDSM habituees of the lifestyle regard it as abuse and porn, not the real thing).
The psychological aspect about it is very complex, becasie there are so many variations within it. The interest in BDSM became more widespread after 50 shades, so it predates covid.

Mike Spoors
Mike Spoors
1 year ago

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.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Spoors

I responded to the Unherd offer of looking at any writing sent it for potentially printing, and said I would write on ‘life, The Great Wheel, and Nature, and the Condition of Existence’ in other words, the very worst kind of fluff. I do not expect to hear back.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
1 year ago

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.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andre Lower
Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
1 year ago

I read this article first thing this morning and I felt myself all day since

Chris Mochan
Chris Mochan
1 year ago

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.

It seems to me that the unconditional support is not the most bizarre aspect of findom, but the derision and humiliation doled out in return.

Nikki Hayes
Nikki Hayes
1 year ago

The author has clearly no idea about real BDSM – and the consensual nature of it. Plenty of us have feelings in this direction – and BDSM is in NO WAY about insulting women for money! Most of us in the lifestyle have no desire to be insulted, and certainly would not pay for the privilege. The author is clearly showing her biases – there are plenty of male submissives/masochists as well as their female equivalents. BDSM is not about one person being less than the other – it is about consensual power exchange, and the BDSM mantra is SSC (safe sane and consensual). I have no idea where the author dug up this crap but she is so far off the mark it is unreal. And, just to make it clear, this is not something children should EVER be exposed to – it is between consenting adults. Seems to me like the author was scratching around for something controversial to write about – and failed miserably.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago

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.

And via ‘boredom’, I might add. This lockdown has forced us to re-evaluate our romantic relationships and play with boundaries.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago

Or as Woody Allen out it.
“Is sex dirty? It is if you are doing it right”

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago

Er… isn’t this just ‘simping’ in rubber-wear?

Peter Dunn
Peter Dunn
1 year ago

Far too much explaining of human degradation.
Insteàd of the slow decline of perhaps 200years,if the Romans had had the internet, this is how they would have debased themselves in about 25years.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Dunn

I’m not sure the debasement practiced by the Romans could even be possible in today’s society. Something about animals and fighting and odd sexual practices comes to mind. Humans apparently have no limits.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
1 year ago

The whole of life is a competition for resources. The best win over the worst in every category. So it is with sex.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago

An interesting peak into the imperfect world of Equality where being more equal than others is hardwired into our biology.

This brings to mind the interspecific interactions of mutualism, commensalism, competition, predation, herbivory and parasitism and the absurd puritanical notion that humans are now trans or post animal.

It also makes me wonder, what Equality are we actually talking about beyond Platonic Ideals and abstracted purity spirals.

Where is Equality if not in the Upper World, the Middle World and the Lower World unless its existence is mediated by a self appointed shaman/God.
https://www.britannica.com/topic/shamanism/Worldview

Perhaps the worldview of Equality is simply a preferable alternative to the worldview of Inequality and so a belief in Equal Unity is preferable to a belief in Unequal Diversity despite the fact that our individual differences is what makes us humanly and unequally unique.

Does this mean the Woke are simply chasing dreams?

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Gwynne
Vóreios Paratiritís
Vóreios Paratiritís
1 year ago

Western people will not be liberated until they have immolated and buried their internal Marquis de Sade, implanted in their cultural hearts for over 200 years. His insights were always an erroneous detour on the road to a better tomorrow and the full nihilism of his error is all around for us to see, if we are brave enough. Look hard, look through, move beyond.

Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
1 year ago

Just another aspect of the toxic femininity that is plaguing western culture. With 25% of women reporting anxiety, and many on meds – with a skew higher to middle class women to boot – it seems like a disaster trying to get yet more women into high office/positions of influence.
All stoicism shorn, to be replaced with neuroticism and emotional incontinence.

david Murphy
david Murphy
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

You mean toxic feminism.
apart for that what about women like Mrs Thatcher? Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi, etc.
There are quite a few highly successful businesswomen too, Martha Lane-Fox, Sheryl Sandberg, Caroline McCall and many others.
My experience with senior women is they are no better and no worse than men. same foibles. but no worse either.