Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Communities and Sexualities
By David M. Ortmann and Richard A. Sprott
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013
Including notes, bibliography and index, Sexual Outsiders is nearly two hundred pages long, but it has a simple message: sexual practices involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission are no less “normal” than any other sort of sexual activity. BDSM is just one galaxy in the vast universe of desire, and kinky relationships can be as healthy and fulfilling (or as unhealthy and destructive) as any vanilla connection.
As a sometime practitioner and long-time fantasist in the BDSM realm, I take this thesis for granted. This book makes it very clear that not everyone feels the same. Ortmann and Sprott share devastating stories about individuals who are been stigmatized, even persecuted, for their sexual proclivities. The authors also consider how stigma develops, and suggest that passion with which some anti-sex or anti-kink crusaders attack “deviance” stems from discomfort with their own sexuality. This is a crucial insight.
I enjoyed reading Sexual Outsiders—it’s always pleasant to have one’s own opinions confirmed—but I found myself wondering about the intended audience. I doubt the book is really targeted toward readers like me, people who have an interest in and some knowledge of kink. The volume spends several chapters discussing various aspects of BDSM practice (Safe/Sane/Consensual, Risk Aware Consensual Kink, negotiation and limits, safewords, after care, etc.) as well as describing a range of specific BDSM activities. Most of these concepts and categories were already familiar to me (though I’d never heard the term “raunch”, which is apparently used to describe scenes involving bodily waste), and I suspect this would be true of anyone with a personal interest in BDSM. On the other hand, Chapter 7, which focuses on the difficulties a kink-identified person may have finding a psychotherapist, would be most relevant to individuals involved with BDSM.
It occurred to me that Ortmann and Sprott might be writing primarily for fellow clinicians (Ortmann is a psychotherapist and Sprott a research psychologist), but despite some sections citing the literature, Sexual Outsiders is too intimate to be scholarly work, and also too shallow in its treatment of theoretical issues and prior research.
Perhaps the authors intend this book to be read mostly by lay individuals who do not identify as kinky, to help them understand the nature and the fundamental normality of BDSM. Readers in that category, though, are likely to be find some of the first person stories in Sexual Outsiders a bit hard to handle (be “squicked”, in BDSM parlance). (In contrast, I found them quite arousing in many cases.)
So I’m somewhat confused about who these authors want to reach with this book. The organization of the volume confused me also. The early chapter names imply an arc from introducing terms (“The Power of Language”), through early experiences in BDSM (“The Curious Novice”), to the point where the kinky person actively claims his or her desires (“Coming Out”). However, then the book shifts gears, discussing, through case studies, both the positive (“Stories of Growth and Healing”) and negative (“When Things Go Wrong”) emotional impacts of BDSM on relationships and personal fulfillment. I really liked these chapters, but they didn’t seem to flow from the earlier sections. The book shifts again in the chapter “Power Is Hot”, as the authors try to explain—with extended and explicit excerpts from clinical interviews— the erotic dynamics of different BDSM rituals, roles and activities. I found this chapter one of the most original and intriguing in the volume. Ortmann and Sprott deconstruct the appeal of being flogged, for example, both precisely and intuitively. The next chapter veers away from this intimacy to discuss the issues kinky individuals face when they try to get psychotherapeutic help. This chapter includes a simulated session with the therapist from hell, which is highly effective in dramatizing the authors’ point.
Overall, the book left me with a recollection of brilliant flashes as opposed to a coherent unity.
A strong point in Sexual Outsiders is its emphasis on BDSM community and culture. Ortmann and Sprott even suggest that some discussion of BDSM should be incorporated into clinicians’ training about cultural diversity and cultural sensitivity. Of course, other cultures and communities interweave with the kink world. One of the most fascinating anecdotes involves a Master/slave pair at a large kink festival, where the Master was white and the slave was black. Other (kinky) attendees objected to the apparently racist elements in this relationship, even though it was clearly consensual.
Overall, Sexual Outsiders offers information, insights and support to both BDSM practitioners and vanilla on-lookers who want to understand what’s going on in the dungeons and at the play parties. The somewhat fragmented presentation reduces the overall impact of the book, but it still has much to offer.
In particular, it occurs to me that some authors of BDSM erotic romance might benefit from reading Sexual Outsiders. Even before Fifty Shades, BDSM was a popular sub-genre in erotic romance, but many authors have little or no understanding of the emotional dynamics involved in power exchange. They focus on BDSM as a path to sexual arousal and satisfaction, without realizing the critical importance of the non-physical aspects. Ortmann’s and Sprott’s volume provides both practical information on the nuts and bolts of BDSM and an eloquent explication of its intensity and beauty. I’d like to read more erotic fiction that reflects these truths.