Book Review: Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality

Book Review: Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, by Margot Weiss (2011) Weiss is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University and an award-winning author whose research focuses on the sexual politics of late capitalism, primarily in the US. The author’s thesis is that BDSM sexuality is a social relation, linking subjects (individuals, desires and embodiments) to socioeconomics (social hierarchies, communities, relations of inequality). Thorough ethnographic research was conducted by Weiss as an observer at dungeon play parties and workshops, and more than 60 SM practitioners were interviewed. The introduction covers terminology and vocabulary, and Weiss explains how

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she conducted her research and fieldwork. The book is divided into five sections: 1. Setting the Scene: SM communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Describes the change from the old-guard Folsom leather scene to the new pansexual BDSM community; examines what is community, social belonging and social privilege. 2. Becoming a Practitioner: self-mastery, social control and biopolitics of SM. Looks at DM training, workshops, classes, and how, based on perceived structure, the rules of BDSM can take away from the intimacy, energy and magic of play. 3. The Toy Bag: exchange economies and the body at play. Examines the connection between SM and consumerism and the commodification of play, and that due to the costs associated with BDSM, the ability to participate can become based on purchasing ability, which creates a society of privilege. 4. Beyond Vanilla: public politics and private selves. Examines the boundaries between real life and the scene, and the resemblance between scene roles and social reality. 5. Sex Play and Social Power: reading the effective circuit. Examines how BDSM scenes are cultural performances that reflect and produce larger social relations. The author’s conclusion is that sexuality is a social relation (with the hierarchies, institutions, local spaces of practice) rather than an escape. As an observer, she found that BDSM practitioners almost seem obsessed with rules and order, safety and security; the contradiction being that BDSM as a practice of sexual freedom outside societal norm is still very structured and controlled. In particular I really enjoyed reading about the history of BDSM in the US, and the origins of the Folsom street fair and the Janus society. I personally like reading about why people do what they do but I could see how some readers might find this book too theoretical and academic. Overall, this book is very academic in its approach and tone and is not a quick and easy read. The opinions are definitely from the perspective of an observer, not a participant and I find that the author’s descriptions of the lifestyle are very de-personalized. Also, her research focuses on a very specific geographic area and I find that her conclusions are misrepresentative due to the narrow scope. Good: -index -references -footnotes for terminology -interesting anthropological examination Not so good: -very narrow in scope (San Francisco based) Conclusion: Interesting for its history of the leather and SM scene in the US but I feel that the conclusions are biased due to the narrow scope. Recommended for: if you like big words and you cannot lie

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