The library did provide me with a copy of Staci Newmahr's "Playing on the Edge" last week. I suppose it's not bad ethnography--- a study of the BDSM scene in a city in the American Northeast. Newmahr writes well, and she has a good grasp of theory. She seems to be someone who's done good academic work. Still...it's a depressing book.
The BDSM community she studied is one that tries very, very hard to distance itself from the idea of sex. Its members don't want to be seen as engaging in "kinky sex"--- and they do use that term in a disparaging sense. They're hostile to outsiders who assume that BDSM is about sex, and they separate themselves from the pro domme world. Newmahr argues that her subjects are seeking a sense of community and are trying to construct intimacy by offering themselves up to each other in physically risky and socially transgressive ways. She points out that most of the people she met and interviewed found the BDSM scene comfortable because it didn't rely on conventional sexual attractiveness--- because their own skills at the mechanics of BDSM took the place of physical beauty or sexual skills. Many of them, she writes, came to BDSM as an alternative to sex.
It's a tale that does leave me depressed. Newmahr's account of her own participation in scene play has some hot moments, but she never addresses the issues that would interest me--- did she have to prep for the scenes she knew she was going to be part of? What went through her mind as she was getting ready? Was any of it exciting or arousing? Did she have sex with any of her scene partners--- or want to? What did she think the next morning? What was it like to sit later and transcribe some fairly scary experiences into academic prose? How did any of it affect her own sex life away from the scene? These are all things that I'd want to know. I read "Playing on the Edge" much the same way I'd read a novel, and the story is depressing.
Nothing Newmahr describes seems worth being part of. The scene she describes has nothing to do with anything erotic, and it has even less to do with anything aesthetic. The clubs she visits are all as depressing as the semi-private sex clubs my London friend told me about visiting with her older admirers. Those places, the clubs in London, aren't places I'd ever visit. I wouldn't be welcome there on the usual grounds--- age, money, looks, attire. I wouldn't go to the clubs Newmahr describes because they're aren't about sex or fantasy, because they aren't about being part of a literary tradition or about a sense of dark grace.
Community and intimacy aren't words I use very often. Neither word is a good substitute for sex or fantasy. And perhaps I'm not any good at either thing. But I can't imagine ever being in the clubs Newmahr describes, let alone taking one of my young companions there. They aren't stage sets for any sort of mannered seduction, and what goes on there isn't part of the sentimental education any of my young companions would want. The London sex clubs wouldn't be places I'd take a young companion, either. I wouldn't have anything to offer anyone at any of the London clubs, and there's nothing there that I'd want to show any young companion I'd be with.
There may be gated chateaux or secret townhouses where sex happens as part of style and ritual, where aesthetics and literary tradition matter, where elegance is regarded as key. You wouldn't go there for community, though. You'd go for the stage sets, for the idea of sex as style. I won't give up on believing that such places exist, even if I'm unlikely ever to see them.