Some thoughts on BDSM and the Desire of the Other

imagesThe French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan  said, “desire is the desire of the Other” (Seminar XIV: The Logic of Phantasy. p.184 1967.). There are a lot of ways to read this and, as is typical with Lacan, most of the ways you could read this make sense and have some depth. The easiest way to interpret this is that we want to be wanted; this, of course is true, but it is not the commonly agreed upon interpretation of the statement. The Other is capitalized. And when Lacan uses this capitalization he’s referring to the Symbolic order (our experiences as beings – subjects – within the the social order: language, gender roles, science, law, authority, etc. basically all the pressures that force us to conform so we’ll fit, at least mostly, into a social state.) So, the general consensus is that he’s speaking of something quite a bit darker: that with our entry into language we are taught/told what to desire through language, by authority in society and we get seduced, bullied and browbeaten into believing it’s what we want.

This seems like a really offensive statement. It suggests a total lack of agency on our part, doesn’t it? Usually, from non-Lacanians, it elicits a defensive ‘don’t tell me what I want or don’t want, asshole’ and ‘don’t tell me I don’t know what I want’. But I’d like you to take a step back and consider this. He’s talking about unconscious desire. That doesn’t mean things we desire we don’t even know we want, but that our reasons for wanting them are opaque to us.

Witness my conversation with an unsuspecting victim:

That blow-job? Why do you want it?

Because I’m a normal guy. All guys want blow-jobs!

And who taught you what it is to be a normal guy?

It’s just natural. It feels good.

It’s not natural. Animals are natural. They don’t suck each other’s cocks. At best, they’re agile enough to groom their own. It’s not going to produce any offspring and, if all you wanted was an orgasm, isn’t masturbation faster and more efficient?

Blow-jobs feel better!

Why? How?

Someone else is getting you off. Giving you pleasure.

Isn’t that interaction always fraught with a certain amount of worry? I mean, the fellator could decide to stop, or gag, or spit, or give up because you weren’t coming fast enough. Why not just masturbate?

Everybody knows blow-jobs are better.

Who’s everybody?

I’m not going to belabour this any further. You’ve been taught that blow-jobs are good. You’ve been taught that normal men want them. You’ve been trained to preference them over masturbation. Don’t feel too bad; I’ve been taught that being penetrated by a man is the apex of the sex act. I’ve been told that it will fulfill me, that it’s the closest two people can get. And, don’t get me wrong, I actually believe it. I’m as likely to allow my desire to be the desire of the Other as anyone else. Meanwhile, penetrative sex is non-orgasmic for approximately 70% of all women so, if all we were after was an orgasm, there’s more efficient ways to make that happen. Still, a lot of women really, sincerely believe that penetrative sex is the bees knees. To believe it is to make it so. And, of course, that blow-job? When it’s successful, it seems to feel much better than a wank, for all sorts of reasons. But they are socially constructed reasons, not innate ones.

But please, let’s not confuse believing with innate truth. Desire is complicated. Most of what we come to believe we desire is culturally constructed, and conforming to that construction reinforces our places in the world, the identities we have, our orientations. It gives us a script to follow and structures our drives in ways that are intelligible to us and everyone around us.

Now, I say most of what we come to believe we want because, every so often, a little bit of the drive creeps through, a little bit of the Real. And suddenly, we might want something that doesn’t seem to conform with our understanding of who we are in the world at all. That can be a very frightening thing. Those are the times when you scare yourself a little or even a lot. Some people never have a moment like that, but a fair number of us do.

How we cope with this eruption – where this moment of unintelligible and socially inappropriate desire breaks through – is interesting. Some people are tremendously ashamed and disgusted by those eruptions, they find mechanisms to clamp down on them and repress them in an attempt to come back into conformity with normative definitions of sexuality. Others are a little more curious about them, and find inventive ways to respond to those desires while still trying to maintain some social equilibrium. A few, of course, go right off the reservation. But that’s another essay.

So, what has this got to do with BDSM?

First, I’d like to make the distinction. I want to propose that there are two types of BDSM. One is arrived at almost, it seems, autonomously, at a reasonably early age and the other is something you’re initiated into by either someone else or some form of media which informs you of the possibility of alternative forms of eroticism.

If you, for instance, developed an erection while being berated by an adult for being a bad, bad boy at the age of 10, or felt yourself growing wet between the legs while playing cowboys and Indians and tying up your best friend, you’re what I’d call natively kinky. I don’t want to suggest that these sorts of erotic reactions spring up out of nowhere or that you somehow miraculously escaped symbolic castration (this is a Freudian term: symbolic castration is the absolute freedom to form meaning we give up to enter into the social order, through language and live in a society of structure by agreed-upon meanings) but you definitely stumbled upon non-normative ways to conceive of your erotic urges. I don’t really want to delve into how this comes about. How we become ‘perverts’ is a discussion historically fraught with value judgment and much pathologizing that, for the purposes of this essay, is irrelevant and unproductive. It happened.

Meanwhile, if past early adolescence you were not too sure about getting your bum spanked but realized it was fun when a partner did it or watched a piece of kinky porn and thought – hey, that would be fun to try – you’re what I’d call an initate.

If you fall into the first category, I want to argue that you are a natural subverter of the desire of the Other. If you fall into the second, and the practice of kink gets you to a place of pleasure that normative forms of sex don’t seem to touch, you’ve made a conscious decision to subvert the desire of the Other.

You’re little troublemakers, each and every one of you. You’ve also willingly or been driven to complicate your lives in ways that make indulging those desires more difficult, socially less acceptable and, in some cases, destabilizing the identities and roles society has determined and imposed upon you.

I don’t want to infer that most BDSM practitioners are constant subverters of the social order or spend their lives pursuing subjective destitution, although some do approach it. But I would like to explore the possibility that many BDSM practitioners have at least travelled some way down the road to questioning and perhaps destabilizing the authority of the Symbolic order because they play with signifiers in a very consciously subversive way.

Think about what you know about BDSM. Even the theatrical stuff you see on TV. Even Rihanna’s whips and chains. Almost all the signifiers (the imagery, the language, the acts, the players) in BDSM are parodies of non-kink realities. There have been and still are real masters and slaves. Historically, people were spanked or whipped for punishment and some still are. People really have used canes and hot wax as forms of torture. Humans have and still do get put in cages. We still restrain people physically and render them powerless all the time. Everyday, women and men turn up at doctor’s offices and are humiliated by the examination and overwhelmed by a medical profession that takes liberties, often without consultation or express permission, with their bodies. We really did used to brand people, and stick needles into them. We forced them to admit their sins in confessionals. We still do verbally berate people and treat them as less than human, strip them of their dignity all the time. And none of it is sexual. These are just some of the ways we wield power.

BDSM takes all those apparently non-sexual signifiers (imagery, language, acts, roles) and subverts them by turning them to the purpose of sexual gratification. In doing so, it recognizes the power of those signifiers, and it plays with them, it makes fun of them, it robs them of their atrocious nature.

The first and foremost way it does this is by the necessary presence of consent. To consent to whip or be whipped, to flog or be flogged, to cane or be canned is, in a small but significant way, to subvert the concept of punishment and destabilize it. In the everyday world, punishment is meted out by people who ostensibly have earned the authority to impose it. It also serves a number of stated purposes (although it might be argued that they are often not very legitimate): a teaching strategy, a corrective device, a deterrent against future misbehaviour, a method of revenge against breaches of laws or social norms.

In BDSM punishment is not only consensual ‘play’ but the rationale for it is never seriously corrective, a deterrent or revenge. And even when it is presented as a teaching strategy, there is always a theatrical tongue in cheek aspect to it. Finally, the authority to deliver punishment is not allocated based on socially recognized power positions. It is the person getting physical ‘punishment’ who has all the say in who has the authority to do it. This is also a subversion of and a resistance to accepted forms of power-dynamic. In a way, it breaks open and confronts us with the reality that while, on an individual basis, we seldom have say in who has authority over us, collectively, we do allow and perpetuate the positions of authority under which we labour and sometimes suffer.

Of course, when it comes to normative gender roles, BDSM is famous for playing with this – most obviously through the erotically motivated domination or feminization of a male submissive. But, contrary to some feminist stances, and perhaps a little counterintuitively, I would argue that the male dominant / female submissive paradigm can also be radically subversive for the very reason that it is informed and overtly and consciously chosen. The transgressive pleasure in this paradigm is not that it reflects conformist historical structures, but that it acknowledges those historical structures were unfair and inequitable, and enacts a kind of erotically-motivated parody of them. Hence there is always the underlying irony that it is the submissive who consciously consents to a dominant’s authority.

Meanwhile, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that there are people who have gravitated towards BDSM unmindfully and uncritically, because they are nostalgic for a conservative social order that is fast disappearing and some areas of BDSM appear to offer them a reactionary refuge. It would be hard to estimate or quantify what percentage of practitioners fall into this category. My gut says that it’s a relatively small percentage, and that the community tends to alienate them quite quickly. The persistent emphasis placed on consent interferes with those types of revisionist fantasies.

I do not make the claim that the practice of BDSM is an outright refusal to undergo symbolic castration when it comes to sexuality but I’m arguing that it sometimes constitutes an active and persistent resistance by repurposing non-sexual signifiers as erotic, and broadening the narrow understanding of what constitutes proper sexual behaviour within our society.

 

P.S. I’m working up these ideas in the considerable intellectual isolation. I don’t have a cohort of Lacanian theory friends to bounce them off, so if I’ve gone off the deep end, and you do have some knowledge in this area, please let me have the benefit of your thoughts.

7 Thoughts on “Some thoughts on BDSM and the Desire of the Other

  1. Not much to say, but I think “consent” is iffy because there’s the possibility that things will occur without consent. I’m guessing that that element is necessary for a full experience.

    • If they occur without consent how does that make them any different from things that occur without consent under any other circumstance. If it’s without consent, it’s rape.

      I’m not discussing non-consent. I hope I made that clear enough in my essay.

  2. Perfect analysis… I am reading this again.. so many interesting talking points…
    Baseball

  3. RG,

    I haven’t the least bit of knowledge of Lacanian theory, just some thoughts on this fine essay and personal observations, I hope you dont mind…

    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, its true, a horse will have a large plentiful pasture in which to graze, yet is often often seen stretching its neck over the barbed fence for those few pulls of seemingly tall luscious grass. The desire for the ‘Other’ is certainly powerful, the desire for what we do not have can be overwhelming. The mind is programed to believe that certain things are desirable by numerous projections yet often times when meted out, we find that the fantasy is much more gratifying than the reality. For instance, from an early age I’ve always been told and imagined back rubs/massages to be pleasurable and gratifying. In reality, I find them to cause tension and discomfort, I find myself to feel odd and out of place. Its not normal, everyone enjoys a massage, right?

    On the larger scales, many desire empowerment only to realize that great power usually means numerous responsibilities, again the clash of fantasy vs reality. One may leave their mate and family to pursue another, thus fulfilling a fantasy that the grass tastes better on the other side of the fence only to find…it tastes the same. Then feel the effects of the savage cuts of barb wire, not only for themselves but on others, the wake of emotional destruction left behind can last lifetimes. This is the sinister part of the desire for the ‘Other’.

    Yet, we are not programmed dogs.
    (Yeah, I googled it… *Chuckles*)
    We are mere human beings, we have that insatiable need to walk the rugged paths Lacan spoke of, because a brief moment of true light is the best.

    Thank you for your writing,
    ~TFP

  4. Also: The submissive’s submission to their Dominant, holding the pleasure of their Dominant as :practically: primary, comes :factually: secondary to the submissive’s own desire to submit/experience submission.

    • I don’t think that is always the case. Sometimes you meet someone you want to experiment with first, and the dynamic you formulate comes later. But, for certain, if it isn’t the submissive giving the dominant permission to dom them, it’s abuse.

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