Sex is not often the topic of classroom discussion, but recent events have made an effort to frame sex acts in an academic context. The Claremont Colleges hosted a series of four events this week and last week relating to Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission and Sadism/Masochism, or BDSM. The events aimed to educate students about BDSM and to dispel misconceptions created by popular media.
“With the explosive popularity of such books such as the Fifty Shades trilogy, it is important to have a critical conversation around BDSM, which is a diverse radical sex practice that is often misrepresented by pop culture texts,” wrote Mary Ann Davis, a gender and women’s studies professor at Pomona College who was one of the series’s main organizers, in an e-mail toTSL.
The name itself gives us some idea of what BDSM involves, but more specifically, “BDSM is a compound overlapping acronym that describes the main elements of erotic power play,” Davis wrote.
“BDSM practitioners take erotic and/or sexual pleasure from exchanging power through specific roles, using specific objects, and enacting specific scenes,” she added. “BDSM practitioners go to great lengths to maintain an ethical erotic practice through advocating clear communication and negotiation before play, using and respecting safe words and limits in play, and ensuring that all participants’ emotional and physical needs are cared for after play.”
Davis wrote that many misconceptions and negative connotations, including some generated by the media, surround the idea of BDSM.
“The most common misconceptions I’ve run across are that 1) BDSM is simply a reiteration of patriarchal, racist, and homophobic ideologies; 2) BDSM always takes place in dark, grimy dungeons, with a plethora of leather whips and chains, and through infliction of severe pain AND/OR it’s always only ever about sex; 3) those into BDSM have psychological issues that, if addressed, would eliminate the desire to practice BDSM,” Davis wrote.
“While the Fifty Shades series has taken some strides in showing how pleasurable BDSM practice can be, the representation of BDSM in these novels is still tightly bound to narratives of normal sexual relations enacted by psychologically healthy people,” she added.
The first event of the series was a discussion entitled “Real Talk: SEX!” facilitated by Queer Resource Center (QRC) Program Director Ebony Williams. Students had the opportunity to discuss openly what they had learned about sex growing up from their families and the media.
The second event was a workshop designed to teach students safe BDSM practices.
Juana Maria Rodriguez, a professor of gender and women’s studies at University of California, Berkeley, and Chris Guzaitis, professor of gender and women’s studies at Scripps College, facilitated discussion on Rodriguez’s paper “Queer Gesture in Mambo Time” for the third event.
The final event was a lecture by Rodriguez on her paper “States of Submission: Racialized Gender and the Critical Promise of Fantasy.”
“Students have the right to ask for and negotiate what kind of sexual or erotic interaction they want and they have the right to be cared for during and after erotic relations—whether or not these relations are BDSM,” Davis wrote. “Such clear communication and attention might seem antithetical to the narratives of spontaneous, caution-to-the-wind, uninhibited passion that pervade our culture. And yet clear communication of erotic needs and desires can be intensely intimate.”
The series was sponsored by the QRC, Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE), the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID) at Harvey Mudd College and the Dean of Students Offices and gender and women’s studies departments at both Scripps and Pomona.