Rethinking Kink: Sadomasochism as Serious Leisure

Abstract

Based on extensive ethnographic research in a public SM (sadomasochism) community, this paper frames SM as recreation. Drawing on Robert Stebbins’ work on “serious leisure” (1982), I posit that in order to more adequately understand SM as it occurs in this community, we need to shift from mainstream assumptions of SM as (simply) “kinky sex” to a more nuanced perspective. I explore the unique skills required in order to engage in SM, as well as the benefits and rewards that participants derive from it, in order to illustrate that SM can be more usefully understood as serious leisure.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A Wartenberg wheel is a handheld stainless steel instrument. The handle is approximately six inches long, at the end of which sits a sharply spiked wheel (akin to a pizza cutter with longer spikes). Originally designed to test neurological responses on skin, the effect ranges from very ticklish to very painful.

  2. 2.

    A single-tail is a long whip with one lash.

  3. 3.

    A thorough discussion of the ways in which this occurs, the role of the community in the lives of its members, and the relationships between community and identity is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper, but insights into some of these issues appears elsewhere (Newmahr 2008).

  4. 4.

    A flogger is a whip, usually but not always made of leather, consisting of one handle to which multiple flat strands (“falls”) are attached.

  5. 5.

    “Boi” here refers to an FTM transgendered person with an identity and presentation as an adolescent boy.

  6. 6.

    The hermeneutics here are hotly contested, but I contend that submission is best understood as a particular kind of bottoming, in which the objectives of play are intertwined with experiences of power and powerlessness.

  7. 7.

    Adapting the term “edgework” from journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen Lyng describes the connection between edgework experience as those that “involve a clearly observable threat to one’s physical or mental well-being or one’s sense of an ordered existence” (1990, p. 857).

  8. 8.

    Excerpt from interview with John Geirland, (1996), “Go With The Flow.” Wired magazine, September, Issue 4.09.

  9. 9.

    There are variations across the nation and within communities—such as the BDSM community, the leather community and the kink community. The distinctions between these terms are contested, but the significance to my argument is in the use of the word “community” rather than in these distinctions.

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Acknowledgements

For their support and helpful comments on this work, I would like to thank Robert Stebbins, three anonymous reviewers, and Javier Auyero.

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Correspondence to Staci Newmahr.

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Newmahr, S. Rethinking Kink: Sadomasochism as Serious Leisure. Qual Sociol 33, 313–331 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-010-9158-9

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Keywords

  • BDSM
  • Sadomasochism
  • Leisure
  • Serious leisure
  • Edgework
  • Sexuality