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Martinez's “Overwhelming whiteness of BDSM: A critical discourse analysis of racialization in BDSM” (2021)

“Overwhelming whiteness of BDSM: A critical discourse analysis of racialization in BDSM”

Ahmed clarified that due to colonialism, much of the world is oriented toward whiteness, thus white bodies experience the privilege of living as a “body-at-home” in the world, whereas racialized bodies experience discomfort from (the fear of) being stopped and diminished in the world. In other words, racialization has the effect of privileging white individuals with access to valuable resources and being granted access to certain styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, and habits—all of which appear and feel natural to the white individuals who may extend their bodies into a world that does not threaten to stop them. Consequently, a white person may go their entire life never questioning their privilege to occupy space, because for them it feels inherent. However, Ahmed noted that the privilege to take up space (i.e. the act) is an effect of colonialism and the habit of whiteness, or the repetition of the act. Also, it is through repetition that certain spaces take on the characterization of the people occupying these spaces, thus naturalizing the whiteness of a space.

Weiss (2011) reported that a majority of the BDSM practitioners during the early 2000s identified as white, whereas Newmahr claimed, “people of color are so rare” in the community she studied for four years that she would have liked a more inclusive sample (2008: 628). Langdridge and Barker further noted that the “whiteness of BDSM” trend extends into other realms: “the overwhelming whiteness of writing on S/M is something that deeply troubles us” (2007: 6).

The whiteness of BDSM is evident in the extant literature dating from the 1970s on, in which most of the authors discussing BDSM appear to identify not only as white, but also westerners. In addition, regardless of study methods, the studies’ sample participants largely identify as white (see Bauer, 2007, 2018; Dancer et al., 2006; Kolmes et al., 2006; Martinez, 2016; Moser and Levitt, 1987; Mosher et al., 2006; Taylor and Ussher, 2001; Yost, 2007), indicating that BDSM is either a phenomenon practiced and researched mostly by white individuals, or at the very least centers their experiences. Importantly, Simula (2019) argued that BDSM research must center racialized individuals’ experiences so as to identify whether and how dominant systems of oppression and control persist within these environments, specifically because academics and practitioners have historically claimed that BDSM spaces do not assign “privileges based on race, gender, and social class” (Califia, 1994: 169).

Cruz explained that black women utilize race play to challenge the history of racial subordination and violence in the USA, and that race play offers the limited potential for black women to transgress black/white power differentials and racial sexual alterity, or the “racial and sexual otherness that characterizes the lived experience of Black womanhood” (2015: 411). Interestingly, Cruz also clarified that race play “imports” racism and racial scripts into simulated experiences of dominance and submission—the simulation is both performed by the racialized body and performed on the racialized body. In other words, racialized individuals do race play whether they desire or not, because they present as such. Consequently, several participants refused to engage in race play simply because it remains imbedded within a “white heteropatriarchal foundation of racism” in the USA (Cruz, 2015: 433). In their study of race play in porn, Smith and Luykx (2017) also explained that the foundation of racism means BDSM power exchanges can never truly be equal. Further, Sheff and Hammers (2011) noted that white privilege shapes BDSM communities and interactions, but remains invisible, which is why Weiss (2011) claimed that BDSM play cannot escape “real-world” inequality.

As a mixed-methods study, participants recruited from BDSM social networking websites Fetlife and Wasteland, and two local dungeons,1 completed a 54-question anonymous, online survey and were subsequently asked to submit their contact information if they wished to engage in face-to-face (n = 11), telephone (n = 11) or Skype (n = 3) interviews. Beyond revealing the whiteness of BDSM, with 86.8% of the 220 survey participants identifying as white, the survey did not prove fruitful for exploring racialization within BDSM, primarily because the tool did not allow participants to elaborate upon their racialized BDSM experiences.

[A]s a third method for assessing the racialized dynamics of BDSM, I created a Fetlife forum post within the “BDSM Theory” group, from which survey and thus interview participants were recruited, and I asked those involved in the group to reflect upon the absence of racialized participants in the original survey sample.

The following themes emerged within interviews: resource differences, racial biases, and relatedly cultural survival. Forum participants primarily focused on racial stigma and oppression, although several also mentioned resource differences. The dissimilarities between interview and forum responses possibly reflect a difference in demographics and thus experiences with BDSM. For instance, most interviewees identified as white, and although demographics could not be verified for all forum participants, more than half indicated a racialized identity, which would impact their BDSM experiences and thus result in a different focus. Further, it is probable that the two group’s themes differed based on sampling; whereas interviewees responded to a call for participation in a survey on BDSM experience and body-image and subsequently volunteered for an interview, forum participants responded to a forum post titled “BDSMers of Color” which was geared toward an online audience interested in theorizing about the absence of racial/ethnic representation in the original survey sample.

For white interviewees, some of the most prevalent explanations for being involved in BDSM practices were related to the participants’ access to economic and educational resources.

Several [white participants] explained that the simple knowledge of BDSM is a privilege afforded those with adequate funds and access to higher education resources. Interestingly, these participants did not make the connection between access to higher education resources and racial/ethnic identity, reflecting the invisibility of white privilege (Sheff and Hammers, 2011).

[P]articipation in public dungeons and events can require significant resources like money and time.

Not only did white participants explain financial resources as an essential aspect of BDSM play, but they also suggested that their own play took quite a bit of time out of their schedules, as did their practice training for the play.

Participants like this [white man], thus, suggested that some BDSM practices become primary identities that require continuous attention and maintenance; even if financial resources are not required, the participant must have time and energy, which presumably have little to do with one’s racial/ethnic identity. In each of these accounts posed by white racialized individuals, whiteness orients the participants toward explaining the lack of racial/ethnic minority BDSM representation as rooted in resource-based deficiencies, rather than race-based experiences. This orientation reveals how “racial and historical dimensions are beneath the surface of the body,” allowing for white racialized individuals to both experience and describe BDSM without reference to race/ethnicity (Ahmed, 2007: 153).

[T]he three racialized BDSM participants each explained their participation and/or lack of participation in relation to their experiences of racial bias, both explicit and implicit, and their need for survival in a white-dominant society.

“Being a woman of color (and a feminist) has maybe given me some different barriers in terms of being more cautious about maintaining my autonomy outside of play” (Asian Australian woman). Here she noted that being racialized and a woman impacts her decision-making around BDSM play, largely because specific assumptions are made about gendered and racialized individuals and their level of autonomy both inside and outside BDSM play and relationships.

Another racialized interviewee (black and white) ... explained that he had no interest in attending public dungeons largely because he imagined that they were full of “old white guys,” which did not sound like an attractive option. He also noted that as a racialized person he had experienced being exoticized, both implicitly and explicitly, due to his skin color. Specifically, he had lighter-complected play partners who would make comments about the contrast between his skin color and theirs.

The third racialized individual ... noted that while she was perceived as a racialized person in her small hometown in the western USA, she was not read as such in larger cities where people took her lighter skin color as a sign of her whiteness. Despite this, she stated that she noticed there were fewer non-white people who practice BDSM and explained, “minorities tend to be more traditional because they are holding on to something that is being taken away from them.” ... This interviewee also described racialized groups as being more conservative than white racialized groups, but was careful to clarify that conservativism often results as a protective reaction to being “othered” on the streets and in other realms.

Whereas the first [white man] did not consider racial/ethnic identity, the second suggested that class could be understood without considering race. This, again, reveals an orientation toward whiteness, which makes white racial identity seem invisible and irrelevant to class privilege. Further, white racial invisibility was exemplified when participants claimed that they did “not notice” race/ethnicity in their BDSM interactions.

Most forum participants who identified as racialized, however, refuted the relationship between BDSM participation and access to resources. Instead, these participants explained various reasons for the whiteness of BDSM, many suggesting that racialized individuals experience stigma and oppression in their everyday lives, so adding another stigma for participating in BDSM or identifying as kinky could be riskier. One participant specifically explained that as a racialized person, he already belonged to an out-group, so felt that participating in another out-group would concern his racialized community.

This [black man] further explained: “Many blacks in the scene have had the experience of feeling isolated at pansexual BDSM events. There are those who view us as a fetish, the BBC syndrome, the ‘I always wanted to be dominated by a black woman.’ Plenty of black Dommes speak of white males approaching them, expecting them to be sassy, finger wagging, ebonic spouting, stereotypes. The same is true of some of the white women in the scene who wish to be ‘used by a black man.’”

Another forum participant suggested that the whiteness of BDSM is generational. In other words, older racialized generations were less willing to engage in BDSM because they had a history of trauma related to their “constant sense of otherness.” This man explained: “I see my parents’ generation as struggling to make a space for themselves even in mainstream dominant culture. I don’t know how they could even think about breaking into a subculture where the rules are so much harder to learn.” (Chinese Australian man)

[W]hite BDSM participants’ discourse focuses on material resources, such as money, education, and time, and racialized BDSM participants’ discourse focuses on social stigmas, racial biases and oppression, and thus cultural survival. These differential explanations for the whiteness of BDSM highlight the habits of whiteness that Ahmed (2007) so carefully described.

[T]he whiteness of BDSM was also reflected within the actual participants’ presence within various BDSM “spaces” related to this study. For instance, there was a clear comfort for white participants in this study to interview—many selecting public cafes to do so—versus a comfort for racialized participants in this study to respond to a forum post online.

[O]ne of the white interviewees explained being “a Master all the time.” As one that inhabits whiteness, he has inherited a world and status that was made white before his arrival, and exists beyond BDSM time and space.

[N]early all racialized individuals in this study had other explanations for their participation in BDSM and theories about the whiteness of BDSM. Mostly, these individuals described their own experiences with being exoticized and/or feeling concerned that racialization and fetishization would occur in predominantly white spaces. Although they too discussed needing resources in order to participate in BDSM play, they noted that their participation primarily depended upon their comfort with specific BDSM play spaces and persons. Moreover, they noted that they had heightened awareness of their racialized bodies because of the potential for experiencing stigmatization and racial bias and oppression from those within the BDSM community.

Cruz noted that because racialized bodies perform racial scripts in BDSM, especially during race play, and have racial scripts performed on them, then racialized individuals “do” race play whether they want to or not.

Through their discourse, or “racial grammar,” white BDSM participants therefore established and/or reinforced racialized power relations that already existed within larger social systems and institutions; they upheld the privilege of using discursive style and language to promote the whiteness of BDSM by describing it as a class rather than race concern, and in doing so, they championed their own comfort (Bonilla-Silva, 2012).

[A]s one racialized participant in this study noted, she prefers to congregate with those who may have a similar racialized experience. This participant’s comment suggests that racialized people make their own BDSM spaces, which provide them the privilege of feeling comfort within likeness.

Because the extant BDSM research predominantly reflects on white individuals’ identities and practices in BDSM, it misses an important critique of the discursive practices that serve to reinforce the whiteness of BDSM.

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