A U N I O N O F L O V E:
Spirituality in BDSM
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright c 1998, 2000, 2008 by William A. Henkin
[This paper was originally presented at a Plenary session of the Western Regional Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, 13 June 1998, Honolulu, HI. A somewhat revised version was published in The Sandmutopian Guardian: A Journal of BDSM Realities, Issue #36, 2000]
I. A Purely Ordinary Mind
If the mind is pure, everyone is a Buddha;
if the mind is impure, everyone is ordinary.
-- Tibetan saying
Before I became a member of this organization [SSSS], after a young lifetime of inchoate fantasy and a half-dozen years of deliberate exploration along the perimeters of the organized BDSM subculture, I entered into a complex and rewarding, decade-long primary relationship that grew out of an explicit agreement that I would belong to someone else. This agreement was not made in the romantic lingo of popular music, whose jargon is filled with adolescent fantasies of infancy redux, replete with assumptions that holding possessive power over another or falling under the spell of such power held by another is a definitive proof of true love; nor was it made in the coercive lingo of warrior history, whose violent victors boast of their superiority over the beaten vanquished. It was made, rather, in the negotiated language of consensual erotic power exchange.
Consensual erotic power exchange is a phrase through which I mean to embrace both the physical interactions at the heart of sadomasochism (SM) and the psychological interactions that underlie dominance and submission (DS),* two styles of being intimate that merge in the loosely-knit BDSM or “leather” community where a fearsome political tenet attributed to Wilhelm Reich is eagerly articulated and erotically celebrated: that if you control someone’s sexuality, you control the person. By definition of its terms, using the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), the phrase invokes the agreed-upon (consensual) give and take (exchange) of sexually amatory (erotic) control, command, dominion, or authority (power). In practical terms it makes explicit the rules of conduct adopted by two or more participants for a BDSM relationship of whatever duration those participants elect. The format for the rules is roughly tantamount to that which governs the interactions between a director and an actor when the director, like the actor, also has a performance part in their mutual production. In the eloquent phrase I first heard from Sybil Holiday, it makes explicit who runs the fuck.
For awhile in this relationship I had a (capital M) Mistress** whose property I agreed to be; and though later we became something very different to one another, the profound
*As I use it, the term “SM” – or S/M, or S&M – has currency in both wide and narrow senses. In the narrow sense, I mean SM to be functionally, if not politically, interchangeable with “sadomasochism,” and to refer to specific activities its participants find erotically appealing that involve intense sensation, such as spanking, whipping, and other forms of flagellation, pinching, squeezing, and other forms of compression, and various excitations of the senses, especially touch, through a wide application of means. In the broader sense, I use the term “SM” to refer to a range of non-coercive activities involving the deliberate give and take – the exchange – of erotic energy, including those that are more emotional and psychological than physical in nature, such as commanding and obeying, which I refer to more specifically as dominance and submission – interchangeable, for me, with DS, D/S, or D&S. In the broadest sense I talk about “the SM community” or “communities” as the whole subculture of people whose erotic interests lie largely, primarily, or exclusively beyond the limits of manual-genital, oral-genital, genital-genital, oral-anal, and anal-genital sexual expression, including but not restricted to practitioners of sadomasochism; dominance and submission; fetishism; bondage; and sexual theatre expressed through role, gender, and age play. Since some time in the late 1990s this community and its entire range of activities has been referred to as BDSM, which is a way to include bondage and discipline – BD, B/D, or B&D – as well as DS and SM in one heading. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin (1995, 1997) was the first person I know to observe that the once nominally unified SM community is really made up of many sub-communities by now.
** As the short story writer James Williams has noted elsewhere, pseudonymously (Hers, 1990), by the term Mistress “I do not mean the perfumed, powdered, pampered Other Woman certain rich men keep to ease them through hard times. Instead I use the term as one might refer to the Mistress of a house, the Mistress of an estate, or the Mistress of a pet: as the feminine form of Master.”
depth of our ongoing friendship has a basis in the intimacy of that original bonding. Today I am the boy in a very different, differently committed, differently fulfilling relationship with a very different Mistress to whom I am a very different sort of property. Along the way I, myself, owned a darling pet girl who wanted very much to remain my property but who did not know herself well enough: however much she may want to, a person simply cannot give to another what she does not already own. And in dozens of lesser encounters with men and women I practiced the physical and psychological arts of consensual erotic power exchange.
When I began to pursue my BDSM activities in earnest I was still searching, as I had been doing deliberately since early adolescence, for a mystical experience that, as if I lived in a less secular age, I thought of as a union with some sort of Godhead. Certainly, happily, I came to SM for the fun and hot sex it offered me; but certainly also, and at least as happily, I stayed because I found in SM a door to an experience of this ecstasy that had its basis in erotics. For in my ongoing practice I learned not only that my whole body could have orgasms as only my genitals had done before, but also that through these same activities I could frequently access the spiritual feelings I had previously associated with contemplation, meditation, and prayer: feelings I had long felt should be a part of sex, but had rarely and then only fleetingly encountered in the vanilla bedroom. Why I found these discoveries remarkable and enlightening, which may seem obvious to some readers, is the subject of another discourse. That I found them so while whipping and being whipped, possessing and being possessed by another person, is the subject of this one.
II. What I Mean, I Think
There is a dream dreaming us.
-- saying of the !Kung, the Kalahari nomads
Whether you are male, female, or any other gender; gay, straight, bi, or any other orientation: if you go to an appropriate party, bar, or similar sort of hunting ground with the intention of getting laid, in time you can generally find someone who appeals to you, catch the person’s eye and agree to leave together, go to one or the other of your homes, have sex in any of several popular varieties, and separate, all without ever knowing the other person’s name or even exchanging a single word. I’m not saying this is the richest expression of human sexuality, but, like many other people, I know from experience it can be done, and I know from experience it can be fun.
But SM in both the wide and narrow senses spreads a very broad umbrella, and to have a successful encounter of its sort you must be ready, willing, and able to communicate about your needs and desires as well as those of your partner or prospective partner, and to negotiate for their fulfillment in explicit language – because, for instance, the S&M practiced by that hot top near the mirror who’s all decked out in shiny, shiny leathers may just be of the Stand & Model variety; the lover or spouse who is your bottom may be a very capable switch more interested in the energy exchange she might have with you than in who holds which end of the whip; and the person you want to tie up and tickle may be eager to worship at your bath cross-dressed or naked in a theatrical erotic fantasy but have no interest at all in bondage or intense sensation.
Of course, you cannot tell someone else what you want unless you’ve made that inventory for yourself. Consequently, consensual erotic power exchange is a sexuality that demands an unusual degree of awareness simply because it demands a degree of awareness at all, and that awareness generally derives from first-hand experience guided by conscious self-reflection.
We humans are social creatures, for the most part. Although most of us seem to want our own ways most of the time, and some of us are by nature more retiring than others, we also want to belong and we want to get along, and it usually takes a fairly dramatic experience or realization, or a persistent set of lesser ones, to push us from our expectations of a mainstream existence into the embrace of an outsider identity (Wilson, 1956). Because our sexual and gender identities are so fundamental to our notions of who we are as individuals, a person’s discovery that he belongs to a sex or gender minority – whether that minority be gay, bi, trans, BDSM, fetish, or some other – fairly well demands that he make at least a cursory examination of what he really wants and, by extension, of who he really is. That cursory self-examination is as much a first essential step – necessary, though not sufficient – toward self-knowledge as self-knowledge seems to be a first essential step toward transcendence.
Let me make a segue here by defining what I mean by “self” and “transcendence”; then, in a roundabout fashion, I’ll return to the subject of erotic power.
In the simplest terms, by “self” I mean a sense of one’s own identity (Restak,1990). Of course, to have a sense of one’s own identity implies an awareness of that identity and, therefore, an awareness of the self one is.
When I speak of “transcendence” I am not referring to the transcendental philosophies that rely on a priori knowledge, or on any sort of moral guideline that exists independent of the human mind, nor do I mean to minimize the importance of sensual experience as those philosophies often do: this is an essay about sex, after all. I refer instead to the experience of rising above something rather as one does in a hot-air balloon, without celebrating, highlighting, disparaging, dispensing with, or getting rid of it: to an experience that includes, rather than inflates, negates, enlarges, obviates, or excludes that which is being risen above. In this way to transcend pain, for example, is not to be without pain or to think of pain as necessarily a bad thing, but to experience pain in some context through which it can be accepted, perhaps understood, and maybe even valued, as when one willingly makes a genuine sacrifice on behalf of someone else. Similarly, to transcend fear in this fashion is not to become fearless or to find fear itself demeaning, but to understand it as, for instance, a warning sign alerting one to look for an impending danger, and maybe even to value it as the necessary precursor to courage. To transcend the mundanity of most human existence in this way is neither to escape from nor to deprive oneself of any of the exigencies of ordinary human life, but is rather to transform one’s experience of living, so that even the pettiest minutiae of survival can be valued, or at least can be experienced as parts of a process in something one values, such as learning, teaching, growing, sharing, loving, or evolving.
In these terms, of course, a person cannot transcend a self she does not have: I can’t transcend an identity of which I am unaware, any more than I can transcend a pain or fear I do not feel.
III. A Man In His Life
[The blind man] said that most men were in their lives like the carpenter whose work went so slowly for the dullness of his tools that he had not time to sharpen them.
-- Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
There is an ancient Chinese story related by Chuang Tzu about a Taoist butcher who had not had his knives sharpened for 20 years; yet, they were as finely honed as they had been on the day they were new. When the local king heard of this remarkable phenomenon he had the butcher brought before him, and asked how such a miracle was possible. The butcher explained that an ordinary butcher has to sharpen his knives every month because he hacks at his meat, while a good butcher has only to sharpen his knives every year because he cuts and carves; but he, himself, was in the Way (on the path of the tao), and wherever his knife blade went the flesh was already parting, so his blades never wore down at all.
I have long read this story as an anecdote about awareness, in which the ordinary butcher exhibits an ordinary sense of identity that allows him to recognize himself, and so he hacks at his meat. Although his rudimentary knowledge requires that he sharpen his knives every month, that knowledge is nonetheless quite sufficient for him to lead an ordinary human life.
In my reading the good butcher exhibits a more refined sense of identity than the ordinary butcher: in addition to being aware of himself as the first butcher is, he is also aware of being aware of himself, and so he carves his meat. If an ordinary sense of identity is a given of ordinary human existence, an awareness of that awareness is not; it requires skill, patience, and training to acquire: it is extra-ordinary.
The butcher who is in the Way, however, following the tao, is aware of being aware of being aware. His sense of identity is so literally at one with the identity of all that is, that his knives never even encounter the resistance of matter, and so, like his consciousness, they never grow dull.
Though many spiritual disciplines have terms for enlightenment or its recognition – Zen Buddhist satori; Sufi fana; Pentecostal Christian rebirth; Hindu samadhi – no two of these words of insight means quite the same thing, some words are translated to mean more than one thing – for example, tao means both the Way to enlightenment and the ecstasy of enlightenment itself – and arguably the words don’t really even translate from their original languages except, more or less, as “ah!” Ah! may be the state of grace in which the scales fall from one’s eyes, or the “one instant” in which St. Teresa of Avilla said that she perceived “how all things are seen and contained in God” (James, 1958, p. 315). According to William James, the turn-of-the-last-century German idealist Malwida von Meysenburg said its perception was “to return from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is.” (James, 1958, p. 304)*
“Unity with all that is” may remind behavioral scientists of Freud’s description of infancy’s oceanic feelings** but Freud was writing about a state before individuation,
whereas von Meysenburg, like other mystics, specifically talks about a return to unity consciousness after individuation. Because, as I said earlier, a person cannot transcend a self she does not have, this return to unity consciousness, including individuation, is what makes the Way an expression of transcendence as I defined it above: “an experience that includes, rather than ... excludes that which is being risen above.”
The Way the story speaks about is not, evidently, very amenable to description except through imagery and metaphor; so in the interests of literary integrity, while recognizing that for many people reading this essay such an exercise will be superfluous, let me offer a dimestore example of three experiences of awareness.
With some few exceptions, I know, everyone reading these pages awakened this morning with an unfocused, unconscious awareness of being alive. We knew we were awake and
*Leibnitz called this the “perennial philosophy” because it exists in some form in virtually every society known throughout history.
** “Originally, the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive – indeed, an all-embracing – feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it. If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego feeling has persisted to a greater or less degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpoint to it. In that case, the ideational content appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe.” (Freud 1961 ).
not asleep, we yawned or stretched our bodies, we performed our ablutions and toilettes, we dressed and we breakfasted alone or in company but without much special attention to our processes. We were hacking at our meat and for the moment that was sufficient.
Along the way to lunch many of us became aware of ourselves, some deliberately through meditation, yoga, dream recall, or another sort of disciplined aid, others accidentally by cutting ourselves with razors, losing our contact lenses, or watching the sunrise. We became a little more attentive, and began to carve our lives.
For those of us who are not already in the Way – for whom downtown parking spaces and seats in crowded theatres do not regularly appear as if by magic at our approach – transcending our ordinary and extraordinary human lives requires a little special effort. Right now, presumably, you are looking at this page; and if you pay attention right now to your own eyes you will be aware of your own awareness; and if you pay attention right now to my words as if they were my eyes watching your eyes you will be aware of your
own awareness of your own self-awareness. As Gurdjieff and his students were at pains to point out (e.g., Ouspensky, 1949), we will likely lose this awareness very soon, and rather by definition without even being aware that we have done so; but we may remember again later or some other day because now we have a benchmark.
In a similar vein, I’ve heard it as an axiom in the BDSM communities that the intense sensation of the slap, whip, needle, or hot wax, like the tension of restrictive bondage or the relaxation of deep submission and surrender, can hone a bottom’s attention wonderfully, and hold his mind from wandering. It is almost as famous a belief that the need to pay attention to the bottom and her condition also provides an opportunity for the top to focus, not unlike attending to a mantra in meditation.
The importance of such focus to a BDSM scene is one reason conversations about taxes and the weather are generally discouraged in party playrooms, and why even in private, intimate relationships some portion of the BDSM experience is often ritualized: focus promotes right‑mindedness that can make of any place a sort of holy space. And in the holy space of conscious self-awareness, as Meister Eckhart said, “The knower and the known are one” (Huxley, 1970, p. 12). This conscious merging is what we sometimes want from erotics.
IV. What the Left Hand is Doing
It cannot be said that I experience ecstasy. When ecstasy takes place, then I am not.
-- Ravi Ravindra, “Unless It Is Wonderful, It Cannot Be Holy”
In general, sex as a technique of meditation and path toward enlightenment has a long history in transcendental eastern philosophies. There, sacred handbooks include the Arabic Perfumed Garden, the Chinese taoist pillow books, the Hindu Kama Sutra, the Japanese Shunga, and the teachings of tantric Buddhism, which is sometimes known as the left-handed path to wisdom to distinguish it from the right-handed path of yoga. Like BDSM as I know it, all these teachings are concerned with the importance of being in the present in order to be in the presence – of another, of the self, of the divine. Apart from technique, much in their teachings can be reduced to be here now, as Ram Dass used to like to say: be here now, be now here, be nowhere – perhaps that is the tao.
I am not saying BDSM is tantra or tao, of course, or that it does lead to transcendence. Indeed, I am not saying it is or does anything its practitioners do not make of it: only that the nature of its practice calls for a first step toward a path to the here and now, which makes the path itself unusually accessible to many of us who live more commonly in a there and then. Like all human behaviors, BDSM activities are, if not psychologically meaningless by themselves, then psychological Rorschachs by themselves; it is people who imbue them with significance. Consequently, erotic behaviors may be made taboo simply because they deviate from social or cultural norms, rather than because they are actually bad, wrong, or signs of innate psychological disorder.
The late Robert Stoller proposed a trauma hypothesis regarding what he called “the origins of the sadomasochistic scripts.” According to Stoller,
The major traumas and frustrations of early life are reproduced in the fantasies and behaviors that make up adult eroticism, but the story now ends happily. This time, we win. In other words, the adult erotic behavior contains the early trauma. The two fit: the details of the adult script tell what happened to the child (Stoller, 1991, pp. 24‑5).
Stoller contended that some people had mastered uncontrollable terror and physical agony from infancy and childhood by working with the pain
in their heads, eventually via daydreams, altered states of consciousness, or genital masturbation, until it was converted into pain‑that‑is‑pleasure: voluptuous pain. They consciously, deliberately, successfully taught themselves to eroticize suffering. Their triumph is their perversion.... (Stoller, 1991, p. 25)
Addressing consensual sadomasochism specifically, citing Otto Kernberg and Ethel Persons, Stoller then argued that “the issue is to define not perversion, but evil, the desire to do harm,” which, he said, was “better studied ... in terms of capacity for harming or not harming another, for intimacy or failure of intimacy....” (Stoller, 1991, p. 49)
While Stoller acknowledged that his hypothesis was “too simplistic” in that it failed to explain “all cases in a category” or “why what seems (with superficial description) to be the same trauma results in different pathologies in different people” (Stoller, 1991, p. 43), he posited that the problem confronting his hypothetical child was not only to anaesthetize a terror or agony but, “a more brilliant outcome, to transform it into its opposite, an adventure (such as art, scientific discovery, erotic style, athletic competition, or politics): excitement followed by pleasure” (Stoller, 1991, p. 44) – in other words, to sublimate the distress.
As Stoller was aware, his trauma hypothesis was hardly new: we have believed for some years that, in his words, “battered children grow up to be battering parents, that pedophiles were sexually molested boys, that female prostitutes were often used incestuously, and that serial rapists were often victims of forced or exploitive erotic abuse in boyhood....” (Stoller, 1991, p. 43)
Working independently, Stoller essentially recapitulated the hypothesis of vandalized lovemaps promulgated a few years earlier by John Money. According to Money, a lovemap, which he claimed differentiates in the first few years of life, represents a person’s idealized lover and what the pair do together in their “idealized, romantic, erotic, and sexualized relationship.” (Money, 1988 , pp. xvi ‑ xix) What Stekel called the paraphilias, Money wrote, are lovemaps altered or “vandalized” by the kinds of traumas Stoller hypothesized, and “range from those that are playful and harmless, to those that are bizarre and deadly.” (p. xviii) The latter include asphyxiphilia and lust murder; the former include most fetishism and consensual sadomasochism.
There is no hard‑edged dividing line between the abusive and the playful sadomasochistic paraphilias. Nonetheless, many S/M people appear to be permanently anchored on the playful side. With a partner appropriately attuned, it may be possible for the fantasy to be staged as a piece of personal, sexuoerotic theatre. Otherwise, it may remain forever coded in the lovemap as fantasy, exclusively.... Statistically, [these paraphilias] may rate as abnormal, but ideologically they are acceptable (p 49).
In the final sixth of the 20th century, psychodynamic trauma interpretations such as those offered by Money (1986) and Stoller (1991) have shed a somewhat normalizing light on consensual sadomasochism (SM) and on the sister behaviors that are now distinguishable from it, consensual dominance and submission (DS) (Henkin and Holiday, 2003 ). But while the new view is enlightened compared with the pathologizing assessments that have prevailed in western psychological thought during most of the 20th century (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, 1987; American Psychiatric Association, 1980; Stekel, 1965 ), it still shines from the same direction, illuminating by way of excusing the dramas of gifted adults who, those authors advise, learned to elaborate and to eroticize successful strategies they devised as children to use as psychological escapes from trauma and turmoil. These authors imply, therefore, that while it is generally harmless in itself, the consensual exchange of erotic power expresses the triumphant process of surviving and even, in some measure, thriving with an incomplete or significantly wounded self. In a related view that, like the interpretations made by Money and Stoller, appears to demonstrate tolerance and to exonerate both the person who participates in consensual erotic power exchange and his behavior, authors such as Baumeister (1989), without even addressing the related role of dominance, perceive the submission they call masochism as a form of escape from the self that offers an individual a chance to forget his troubles and leave his damaged self behind, at least for the duration of an erotic encounter.
Yet psychodynamics, though it is the reigning paradigm of our psychological era, is not the only successful way humans have evolved to understand our erotic experience, and pathology is not the only way to understand the differences among our pleasures. At the dawn of yet another century, as even American psychiatry has begun to relent (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), we may again be able to see what less medically oriented students of human sexuality have previously observed: that human sexual behaviors marked by the willing give and take of power and control have common analogues among other mammalian species (Gebhard, 1969), that they extend far back in human history and are widespread in our society (Bullough, 1983), and that while a person’s specific acts – what she does – may define her to other people, it is the purposes behind those acts – her motives – that more truly define her to herself.
The issue, then, may not only be to define evil rather than perversion, as Stoller thought, but to recast altogether the almost reflexive way we in our epoch define variant sexual behaviors negatively. Baumeister’s (1989) conclusions reflected what Karen Horney had noted decades earlier, when she considered masochism as a general rather than a paraphilic term and asserted that “all masochistic strivings are ultimately directed toward … the goal of oblivion, of getting rid of self with all its conflicts and all its limitations.” (Horney, 1966, p. 240) Cowan, however, commenting on Horney, observed that “psychiatry has consistently equated this desire for oblivion with pathology. In former times, in a less secular age, it was regarded as a striving for union with the Godhead, and its ecstasy was mystical…. [But] if we look for pathology, no doubt we will find it.” (Cowan, 1982, pp. 98-9)
Ellis (1926 ) and Freud (1983 ), among others, saw that masochism and sadism could be connected in the same individual, which is a well-known phenomenon in the BDSM communities, and it may be possible to appreciate that one goal of consensual erotic power exchange, no matter what someone’s ostensible role might be, may be a desire for that most intense sort of intimacy described as often in ecstatic religious writings as in erotic or romantic ones. And if, as Cowan (1982) observes, submission can be understood as a metaphor for the soul’s longing to be, or even to merge, with a Godhead, then it may be possible to appreciate both the gift and the acceptance – the exchange – of erotic power as a quest to transcend, rather than repair or escape from, the self, and to understand how erotic power exchange may offer the potential for one human version of the transcendental experience St. John of the Cross called “a union of love.” (James, 1958, p. 315)
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