Intimacy, Play, and Identity
Sexuality is, still, something seen as taboo, and deemed not appropriate for everyday conversation. Society assumes men and women will marry, procreate, and in time, create their own family: where their children will repeat the process. However, people do not always adhere to the model: some will live within the “deviant” parts of society. There are people who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender, Queer), SM (Sadomasochism), and many more. One identity, out of the plethora, that many people have problematized is the identity of SM. Those who participate in the SM scene proscribe SM as their primary identity. Previously, there has not much research done on the SM community: but, that has changed.
Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, authored by Staci Newmahr, provides great insight into the study of SM. Newmahr immersed herself in the community, and conducted ethnographic work to gain a better understanding of the pansexual SM scene in Caeden. To do so, Newmahr joined a SM organization (Horizons), and participated in SM play. Throughout her research, Newmahr comes across key issues that aid her understanding of the community. I believe there are two key issues at stake. First, Newmahr explored how before people of the pansexual SM community came to an SM identity; they had always lived on the margins of society. The second dealt with the discourse pertaining to intimacy. How does the pansexual SM community challenge the “norms” of intimacy, and, essentially, recreate intimacy in the same space?
People build community on commonalities. Whether it is due to the fact of an interest in sports, or life experiences, people find support in commonalities. Those who participated in the pansexual SM scene of Caeden not only had commonalities in their enjoyment of SM, but also the way in which they lived on the margins of society while growing up. One of the ways members viewed themselves as living outside society’s margins was through their bodies. Some men viewed their bodies as ‘unmasculine’ (Newmahr 27) while similarly, some women considered their bodies as ‘unfeminine.’ Men, who deemed themselves ‘unmasculine’ in the sense of their body, were usually overweight, and/or “scrawny or puny” (Newmahr 27). Those who filled these spaces were outcasts because they did not adhere to views of hegemonic masculinity. From Newmahr’s research, we are provided insight from community members about the marginalization of body types. For example, Greg, who is overweight, and Bobby, who is ‘scrawny,’ “referred to being bullied by girls in particular, which they each experienced as especially emasculating” (Newmahr 27). In a society where being overweight, or ‘scrawny,’ is viewed as undesirable, it is easy to see why Greg and Bobby were ridiculed. People, from early in life, are socialized about concepts of ‘sexiness’ and ‘desirability.’ Girls are taught to want men who are built, and have great bodies: but, not all men fit that ideal. No wonder why Greg and Bobby lived outside the margins: they were not ideal types. The same ideal goes for women. Those who are overweight, or too tall, are outside feminine boundaries.
The discourse of intimacy is based on emotional experiences, or feelings of connectedness while in relationships: “Part of the difficulty in the study of intimacy is the conflation of the emotional experience of “intimacy” with the characteristics and benefits of “intimate relationships” (Newmahr 168). People in a given society would agree with this definition, but not those of the SM community. They believe intimacy is not, solely, for “intimate relationships,” but intimacy can be felt in SM play.
Members of the Caeden SM scene believe that one can have intimacy within their SM play. Most would argue how could there be intimacy in a place where there is no relationship: it is easy. Intimacy is about giving others access to part of an individual you do not otherwise disclose: “It is a basic assumption in Caeden that participants “access” each other through play in ways that others do not” (Newmahr 172). SM breaks the mainstream thought that intimacy is only for the bedroom. Instead of sharing special feelings, and thoughts with another person, they are giving them an alternative intimacy: their body. The bottoms in SM play are trusting the top will not harm them, nor violate them. Since SM is about risk, and trust, of course it is a space for intimacy: “it is here, in this unknown, risky space, that intimate experience is constructed and understood as such” (Newmahr 178). It is a brave thing to trust someone with your body, and not know whether they will hurt you, or not. Intimacy is, thus, created by the trust between the players.
Research in fields uncommonly studied is helpful to understanding human nature. Society believes people can be molded into law-abiding citizens: staying away from ‘deviant’ activity. However, people are natural beings. All people do not feel everything the same, nor does everyone have the same desires. People can create intimacy, and live on the margins of society without repercussions. ‘Deviant’ behavior does not dictate a person’s being. If anything, ‘deviant’ behavior should be an alternative people do not normally think about, which can, also, be the beginning for a new norm.
- Staci Newmahr. Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy. Indiana University Press, (2011).
- Anthony Giddens. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford University Press, (1992).