Gender, Power & Sexuality in BDSM Interactions

A review of A “Different Economy of Bodies and Pleasures”? Gender, Power, and Sexuality in BDSM Interactions, by Brandy Simula.

Brandy Simula’s dissertation draws its fundamental inspiration from Michel Foucault’s imaginings of different sexual and erotic social and bodily configurations. Extending Foucault’s call for new conceptualizations of currencies, discourses and erotic life, Simula’s work makes important theoretical and empirical contributions in multiple directions.

The first half of the dissertation is devoted to laying the groundwork. Simula writes with an acute awareness that zir topic (in keeping with contemporary queer-feminist theory, I use the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” for “she” and “he,” and “zir” for “her” and “his”), multiple methodologies, theoretical frameworks and political representation choices are nonstandard within the discipline of sociology, and the first four chapters explain, contextualize and justify these choices. Chapter 1 explains the importance of studying BDSM and the people who participate in it, and formulates zir quintessentially interactionist research question: how do BDSM participants experience gender, power, and sexuality in BDSM and other social interactions? The second chapter provides a review of the literature and positions zir work as queer and feminist. Simula draws heavily on both classic and recent work in gender studies, most notably West and Zimmerman’s concept of “doing gender,” Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity and Cecilia Ridgeway’s articulations of the ways in which gender is interpreted and enacted via interactional frames. In Chapter 3, Simula adds a theoretical dimension to zir research position, situating zir work as within a “queer feminist symbolic interactionist conceptual framework” (p. 321). Ze relies here on canonical interactionist work by Mead, Blumer and Goffman in a deft and important synthesis of queer and feminist approaches with symbolic interactionism. The fourth chapter describes Simula’s research design, methodology and triumvirate of data sources: 32 in-depth interviews, archival material from the National Leather Archives and Museum and public discussion boards on one of the largest BDSM community websites,

After the necessary steps of legitimizing zir research on this often-sensationalized subject matter, Brandy Simula begins to share zir “findings.”  Because ze takes care to parse out variant threads in the emerging discourses, these findings are fascinating and provocative. Chapter 5 tackles the relationships for BDSM participants between sex, sexuality and BDSM. Simula uncovers important distinctions among BDSM participants. Ze finds that although nearly everyone in zir sample perceived BDSM as often having a sexual aspect, the majority also reported that their play was “not always or necessarily” a sexual experience (p. 170). Simula’s research reveals the problems with interpreting BDSM “through a sexuality-based paradigm” and calls for the development of a model of sexuality that can account for non-genitally centered sexual pleasure (p. 136).

Simula’s most extensive chapter explores the role of gender in BDSM identities and interactions for the participants in zir sample. Drawing heavily on recent work by Cecilia Ridgeway and now-canonical work by Candace West and Don Zimmerman, Simula investigates how people in zir sample use gender in BDSM interactions and elsewhere, and the extent to which they view gender as socially relevant. Ze directs zir attention to three different aspects of gender salience: in the construction of selves, in choosing and interacting with BDSM partners and in their beliefs about gender rigidity and fluidity. One of zir most interesting findings is the frequency with which BDSM participants base their partner selection on criteria other than gender; for 18 of zir 32 interview partners, BDSM identity or role trumps gender in partner selection. For most of these participants, gender is irrelevant in partner selection and in structuring their BDSM interaction. Refusing to shy away from the decades-old feminist controversy around SM, Simula tackles the use of gender stereotypes in BDSM, the possibilities of playing with gender within its temporally bounded space and issues of gender fluidity in the community more broadly. Ze finds that there is an impressive range of gender performances and salience among BDSM participants, and ultimately concludes that “it is not BDSM itself, but what one does with other BDSM participants in the context of BDSM interactions that influence the extent to which BDSM interactions support or subvert the normative gender system” (p. 240).

Simula’s seventh chapter grapples more squarely with the issue of gender inequality in BDSM interactions and among BDSM participants. Ze explores participants’ beliefs about gender and power along three distinct axes: hegemonic perspectives on gender and power, perceptions about gender differences in expressions of power, and the influence of gender identities on BDSM roles. Simula finds that most of the participants in zir sample “reject hegemonic gender beliefs that construct power and dominance as more appropriate for men compared with women and powerlessness and submission as more appropriate for women compared with men” (p. 285).

At its most basic level, Simula’s work illustrates the complexity of alternative sexualities, demonstrating the need for new approaches and models in order to understand these complexities. Yet the significance of Simula’s work extends well beyond a fuller understanding of BDSM participants and communities. While this is interesting and important in and of itself, Simula’s careful and precise synthesis of queer, feminist and interactionist thought serves as a model for gender studies.

Finally – and arguably most provocatively – Simula’s dissertation is a representational tour de force, in keeping with the queer feminist politics of the work. Zir decision to use gender-neutral names and pronouns throughout the work is thoroughly destabilizing. For some readers, it may even be distracting. Yet it accomplishes what it seeks, exactly, powerfully and interactionally; each instance demands that we ask ourselves why it is we need to know the gender identity of the speaker, and how this information would change the representation on the page before us. There is brilliance in Simula’s multi-layered research design, in zir meticulous attention to methodological questions, and in zir extrication of complex subtleties in the discourse of the participants in zir sample. None of this rivals, though, the brilliance of zir own performance, on the pages of this work, of gender framing, gender play, gender fluidity and questions of power. As we read zir interrogations of gender and power, juxtaposed with the standard positivist, authoritarian (and arguably masculinist) epistemological paradigm for social science dissertations, we are interrogated along these same dimensions. This is the fundamental queerness of zir project, and it is an inspiration for feminist theory and symbolic interactionist writing.

Staci Newmahr
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Buffalo State, The State University of New York

Primary Sources

32 in-depth interviews
Archival data: papers and correspondence from the Leather Archives and Museum collection, including the Anthony deBlasé papers, the Justin Tannis papers, and the J.D. Rabbit papers.

Dissertation Information

Emory University. 2012. 377 pp. Primary Advisors: Cathryn Johnson and Mark Jordan.


Image: “A BDSM-style collar that buckles in the back. This was a featured picture of Lady Byron.” Photograph by Grendelkhan. Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. nirevess

    Why ‘zir’ and not ‘zis’?
    Plus, I don’t see how this ‘zir’ thing relates to the BDSM world; maybe just the queer/transsexual world. Gender roles are very strong in the BDSM scene.

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