Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Biopower, Sadomasochism, and Pastoral Power: Acceptance via Transgression

  • 306 Accesses


The transposition of biopower from the state to the individual has been a major preoccupation of biopower scholarship in recent decades. While some researchers have found grounds for optimism in the diminution of state control over people’s bodies, others see the change as merely a more sophisticated version of state control which has become, if anything, more invasive of individual lifestyle choices. In this paper I show how the institutionalization of hierarchical power relations does justify optimism about ways of confronting the complex mechanisms of control entailed in modern biopower. I claim that the crux of control in our information society derives from the transposition of the pastoral power described by Michel Foucault to the modern state and that the institutionalization of hierarchical power relations can constitute an effective countermeasure to that power. Hierarchical power exchanges can generate a social and cultural framework which, while operating according to the logic of biopower, expands modes of thought and practice beyond the unified thinking that contributes significantly to the modern state’s control over the individual.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    At times, Foucault refers to biopower as biopolitics, while elsewhere he includes disciplinary power under the heading of biopower. Here I use the term biopower throughout.

  2. 2.

    One cannot categorically state that discipline depends on a static subject; there is a broad and diverse debate about this in Foucault studies, including Judith Butler’s (1993) discussion of the relationship between discipline and performativity. The intention here, however, is not to deny the ethical potential in discipline but rather to contrast the precedence of the state in shaping the body with biopower, which a priori derives from the vitality of the body and its self-activation.

  3. 3.

    See in this regard the articles of Ladelle McWhorter and Shannon Winnubst in the 2012 issue of Foucault Studies, which expand effectively upon this point.

  4. 4.

    I do not mean that resistance may only be premised on contradicting the tactics that establish biopower. Many thinkers, the most prominent of whom is Judith Butler (1993), suggest a basis for action from within a field of power acting on the body rather than through resistance to it. I believe that this kind of counter-conduct is characteristic particularly of analysis of patterns of discipline and less of biopower, although the immanent connection or separation from them in the context of resistance is beyond the scope of this essay.

  5. 5.

    The centrality of genital place is controversial at the literature. In history of sexuality Foucault used the term power strategy (Foucault 1977, 1977–1978) as a comprehensive constitution to sexual identity and as Weiss presents there is an inner dispute in Foucault's literature concerning the ethical signification of sexual stimulation (Weiss 97–8). Here, I paralleled between sexual identity to hetero normativity, while I signified the way which images and behaviour established under genital determination of masculinity and heterosexuality.


  1. Agamben, G. (1995). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. New York: Fordham Press.

  2. Bauer, R. (2014). Queer BDSM intimacies: Critical consent and pushing boundaries. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  3. Beckmann, A. (2009). The social construction of sexuality and perversion: Deconstructing sadomasochism. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

  4. Bell, D., & Binnie, J. (2000). The sexual citizen: Queer politics and beyond. Cambridge: Polity.

  5. Brown, W. (2005). Edgework: Critical essays on knowledge and politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  6. Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.

  7. Califia, P. (2002). Public sex: The culture of radical sex. New York: Cleis.

  8. Chatterjee, B. B. (2012). Pay v UK: The probation service and consensual BDSM sexual citizenship. Sexualities, 15(6), 739–757.

  9. Davidson, A. I. (2011). In praise of counter-conduct. History of the Human Sciences, 24(4), 191–227.

  10. Dean, M. (2008). Governing societies: Political perspectives on domestic and international rule. New York: Open University Press.

  11. Downing, L. (2004). On the limits of sexual ethics: The phenomenology of sexual autoassassinophilia. Sexuality and Culture, 18(1), 3–17.

  12. Downing, L. (2007). Beyond safety: Erotic asphyxiation and the limits of SM discourse. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.), Safe, sane and consensually. New York: Palgrave.

  13. Downing, L. (2013). Safewording! Kinkphobia and gender normativity in fifty shades of grey. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(1), 92–102.

  14. Dymock, A. (2012). But femsub is broken too! On the normalisation of BDSM and the problem of pleasure. Psychology & Sexuality, 3(1), 54–68.

  15. Evans, D. (1993). Sexual citizenship: The material construction of sexualities. London: Routledge.

  16. Fassin, D. (2012). Humanitarian reason: A moral history of the present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  17. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punishment: The birth of prison (A. Sheridan Trans.). Penguin Books: New York.

  18. Foucault, M. (1977–1978). The history of sexuality, part 1: The will to know (R. Hurly Trans.). New York: Pantheon Books.

  19. Foucault, M. (1984). The use of pleasure (R. Hurley Trans.). New York: University Press.

  20. Foucault, M. (1997a). Subject and power. In J. Paubion (Ed.), power. New York: New Press.

  21. Foucault, M. (1997b). Omnes et singulatim: Toward a critique of political reason. In J. Paubion (Ed.), Power. New York: New Press.

  22. Foucault, M. (1997c). Sex, power and the politics of identity. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics: Subjectivity and truth (R. Hurley et al. Trans.). New York: New Press.

  23. Foucault, M. (2004). Society must be defended lecture given at the College de France, 1975–1976. In M. Bertani & A. Fontana (Eds.), (D. Mace Trans.). New York: Picador.

  24. Foucault, M. (2007). Security, territory, population. Lectures given at the College de France, 1977–78. In M. Senellart (Ed.), (G. Burchell Trans.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  25. Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics. In In M. Senellhart (Ed.), (G. Burchell Trans.). New York: Palgrave-Macmillan

  26. Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy. Cambridge: Polity.

  27. Halperin, D. (2002). How to do the history of homosexuality. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

  28. Halperin, D. (2012). What do gay men want? An essay on sex, risk, and subjectivity. An arbor: University of Michigan press.

  29. Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2005). Multitude: War and democracy in the age of empire. New York: Penguin Books.

  30. Hopkins, P. D. (1993). Rethinking sadomasochism: Feminism, interpretation and simulation. Hypatia, 9(1), 116–141.

  31. James, E. L. (2013). Fifty shades of gray. New York: Blackwell.

  32. Jolene Sloan, L. (2015). Ace of (BDSM) clubs: Building asexual relationships through BDSM practice. Sexualities, 18(5–6), 548–563.

  33. Kathy, S. (2007). The cultural formation of S/M: History and analysis. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

  34. Khan, U. (2014). Vicarious kinks: S/M in the socio legal imaginary. Toronto: University of Toronto press.

  35. Langdridge, D. (2006). Voices from the margins: Sadomasochism and sexual citizenship. Citizenship Studies, 10(4), 373–389.

  36. Langdridge, D., & Barker, M. (2007). Situating sadomasochism. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

  37. Langdridge, D., & Barker, M. (2013). Sadomasochism: Past, present, future. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 3–13). Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

  38. Langdridge, D. (2014). Sadism/Masochism. In T. Teo (ed.), Encyclopaedia of critical psychology. New York: Springer.

  39. Langdridge, D., & Butt, T. (2006). The erotic construction of power exchange. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 18(1), 65–72.

  40. Lemke, T. (2011). Bio politics: An advanced introduction. New York: New York University Press.

  41. McClintock, A. (1993). Commercial fetishism and gender power. Social Order, 37, 87–116.

  42. McWhorter, L. (2012). Queer economics. Foucault Studies, 14, 61–78.

  43. Miller, P., & Rose, N. (2008). Governing the present. Malden: Polity Press.

  44. Moser, C., & Madeson, J. J. (1996). Bound to be free: The SM experience. New York: Continuum.

  45. Moser, C. (2016). DSM-5 and the paraphilic disorders: Conceptual issues. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 2181–2186.

  46. Moser, C. (2018). Paraphilias and the ICD-11: Progress but still logically inconsistent. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47, 825–826.

  47. Newmahr, S. (2011). Playing on the edge: Sadomasochism, risk and intimacy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

  48. Ojakangas, M. (2005). Impossible dialogue on bio power: Agamben and Foucault. Foucault Studies, 2, 5–28.

  49. Oleksy, E. H. (Ed.). (2009). Intimate citizenships: Gender, sexualities, politics. New York: Routledge.

  50. Parchev, O., & Langdridge, D. (2018). BDSM under security: Radical resistance via contingent subjectivities. Sexualities, 21(1–2), 194–211.

  51. Plummer, K. (2001). The square of intimate citizenship: Some preliminary proposals. Citizenship Studies, 5(3), 237–253.

  52. Plummer, K. (2003). Intimate citizenship: Private decisions and public dialogues. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

  53. Prado, C. G. (2010). Choosing to die: Elective death and multiculturalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  54. Prozorov, S. (2007). The unrequited love of power: Bio political investment and the refusal of care. Foucault Studies, 4, 55–58.

  55. Rabinow, P. (1996). Essays on the anthropology of reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  56. Rabinow, P., & Rose, N. (2006). Biopower today. Biosocieties, 1(2), 17–31.

  57. Raman, S., & Tutton, R. (2010). Life, science and bio power. Science, Technology and Human Values, 35(5), 711–734.

  58. Rose, N. (2001). The politics of life itself. Theory, Culture and Society, 18(6), 1–21.

  59. Rubin, G. (2011). Deviations: A Gayle Rubin reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  60. Ryan-Flood, R. (2009). Lesbian motherhood: Gender, families and sexual citizenship. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  61. Sabsay, L. (2012). The emergence of the other sexual citizen: Orientalism and the modernisation of sexuality. Citizenship Studies, 16(5–6), 605–623.

  62. Stychin, C. F. (1995). Unmanly diversions: The construction of the homosexual body (politic) in English Law. Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 32, 503–563.

  63. Stychin, C. F. (2003). Governing sexuality: The changing politics of citizenship and law reform. Oxford: Hart.

  64. Taylor, G. W., & Ussher, J. M. (2001). Making sense of sadomasochism: A discourse analytic account. Sexualities, 4(3), 293–314.

  65. Weait, M. (2007). Sadomasochism and the law. In D. Langdridge & M. Barker (Eds.), Safe, sane and consensual: Contemporary perspectives on sadomasochism (pp. 63–82). New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

  66. Weeks, J. (2000). Making sexual history. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  67. Weinberg, J. D. (2016). Consensual violence: Sex, sports and the politics of injury. California: University of California Press.

  68. Weiss, M. D. (2006). Mainstreaming kink: The politics of BDSM representation in US popular media. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2–3), 103–132.

  69. Weiss, M. (2011). Techniques of pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality. London: Duke University Press.

  70. Wood, J., Crann, S., Cunningham, S., Money, D., & O’Doherty, K. (2017). A cross-sectional survey of sex toy use, characteristics of sex toy use hygiene behaviours, and vulvovaginal health outcomes in Canada. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 26(3), 196–204.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Ofer Parchev.

Ethics declarations

Conflicts of interest

The author declares there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article doesn’t contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by the author.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Parchev, O. Biopower, Sadomasochism, and Pastoral Power: Acceptance via Transgression. Sexuality & Culture 23, 337–355 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-018-9563-x

Download citation


  • Pastoral power
  • Biopower
  • Erotic power exchange
  • Sexuality