f/m in the s/m

This weekend I signed a waiver promising that I would not engage in electrical play above the waist. Then I walked downstairs into a women-only space at a club normally packed with gay males. I went in drag. (Of course, in a binary-gendered society I’m always in drag) I had no idea what to expect; I was to attend an S&M party in the middle of International Mr. Leather.

What I observed and experienced in the basement spoke to gender within the broad and trans-friendly spectrum of "women." Of the master/slave pairs (yes, collars included), those with a femme/butch distinction invariably positioned the femme in the dominant master role. Is such a dom displaying a necessary ultra-femininity to counterbalance the culturally taboo claiming of power and sexual control by a woman? (But then, would mimicry of male/female dominance through a butch/femme dom/sub pair be considered more justified or at least more “normal”? Or would this instead reinforce the shocking dangers of a woman taking on “a man’s role”? Does putting the femme on top soften the cultural blow?) Perhaps the femme/butch dom/sub pair is a deliberate reversal of power relations normalized in the wider culture. Or, does the dominant femme embrace and reclaim the age-old fear that a woman’s power is in her sexuality? (And that her sexuality is tied irrevocably to her womanhood…)

And how many of those possible explanations factor into how hot I found those pairs? How did my own gender performance affect my relation to the women I voyeuristically observed giving and receiving commands, spanks, floggings, kisses, slaps, and more?

I find it very telling that this party was limited to women. There’s a strong sense that straight men cannot be trusted to enter a space of vulnerability and power like an S&M party. Of course, one has to question whether someone who comes to a place of group sex and public S&M isn’t automatically queered (gender attraction aside). The mere thought of someone accustomed to exercising male privilege would prevent (through intimidation or disgust) many queer women from attending. It doesn’t seem to matter that such a man might be well-behaved and play by the rules; his very presence changes the atmosphere. The gay men whose territory we had, after all, invaded, seemed a bit confused at being barred from the basement but they continued to dance merrily above. While I’m less concerned about their ability to deter women from attending, I hardly think they suffered from exclusion. This was the one event of International Mr. Leather catering exclusively to women. That specialization in itself is sexy and creates a sacred space, paradoxically freeing women from their gender by its very invocation: hence the wide range of costume and personality along (what I’ve reluctantly labeled) a butch/femme spectrum. It’s less about “my womanhood grants me entry” and more “as I am attracted to women, how wonderful that no men will be in the way.”

A friend of mine believes strongly in the power of S&M to release and heal embodied trauma, benefits accessible to all and entirely independent from the sexual thrill some people experience. Violations of the body, in particular, are carried with us almost like muscle memory. But as long as we live in a body- and sex-negative society, it’s likely that people suffering these particular wounds will continue relying upon either the talking cure or therapy in a bottle, nevermind the relative efficacy of these approaches. There is little room for exploring alternate therapies.

It’s a wonder someone was able to advertise and throw a party like this, then, and no surprise at all that every participant signed a consent form and legal waiver.

But S&M is increasingly present in mainstream culture, filtering its way in through films like Secretary and popular comedy. [Make sure you check out the SNL opener after Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House] And as more talk happens, we’ll find a growing, subversive channel for power, sexuality and gender expression.

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