Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel (1564) by Pieter Bruegel the elder, (1525-69)

“And the whole world had one language and of one speech.  And it came to pass as they journeyed from the east they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
They said to one another other, Go to, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly. They had brick for stone, and used slime for morter.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had built.
And the Lord said, “Behold the people is one and they all have one language; and this they begin to do; now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is name the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Genesis 11:1-9


This is the Biblical creation myth of how all the peoples of the earth came to speak different languages and cannot understand one another.

From a social constructionist view, this is an essential story for maintaining the illusion of exceptionalism that allows believers to know that, despite the fact many people in the world do not speak their language or share their symbols, believers have special understanding of The Lord’s lessons and purposes.

But the problem of shared meaning is a great deal broader and more pervasive than just shared faith.  Cultures and subcultures are established in part to concentrate meanings and beliefs.  They exist in dialectical relation to one another, and are each in tension with private, idiosyncratic meanings.  Clinicians have one language.  Organized kinksters have another.  Our separate jargons stand in relation to the larger parent culture that is part of our shared context.  Divine intervention is hardly necessary to cause us difficulties understanding one another.

This essay is going to look at some of those unshared understandings so that we might better know what the different communities mean.  Sometimes the effects are silly, like CBT translating as cognitive behavioral therapy in the clinic and cock and ball torture in the dungeon.  The real opportunities for genuine confusion are minimal given the context.  Only the willfully oppositional or the sarcastic seek to confuse the meanings.  Sometimes its political, like Polynesian activists urging the consensual non-monogamy community not to infringe on their language by calling polyamory ‘poly.’ The context overlap between Polynesia and polyamory are few and far between. And sometimes it’s a term like ‘sadism’ which has gone far beyond specific reference to the practices of the Marquis de Sade, and means a number of other things across several different contexts.


The Polynesians settled the eastern areas of the Pacific, mostly in the last 1000 years, through amazing feats of seamanship.  Mostly they were not polyamorous!

One of the consequences of the close examination and politicization of these languages is that stigmatized activities or communities have become very difficult to name satisfactorily, and the low barriers to participation that the World Wide Web has provided lubricate and publicize these discussions.  Nowhere is that more evident than in kink, which has undergone a kaleidoscopic array of name changes.  It has been called ‘The Life, The Scene, The Lifestyle, the Underground, sexual outlaws, S-M, S/M, S&M, Leather, Leather Sex, Bondage, Bondage and Discipline, Fetish, Sadomasochism, Love Bondage, and recently, BDSM followed by Kink.  Every one of these terms can be challenged on some basis.  Some terms are used by other subcultures such as prostitution or rock music.  Some are overly specific, or feature only a part of a larger community.  Some are too broad, and leave boundaries unclear.  Some changes have been advocated to choose less pejorative language, such as the drive to expunge medical terminology such as ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’ from the community’s identity.  Some are efforts to prevent fragmentation, others are an attempt to exclude.  All of this struggle serves as background and context for individuals who choose to affiliate or not based on how they relate to and adopt the communities’ language.  The naming “Wheel of Fortune’ has stopped for now at ‘kink’, which is embraced for its generalism and its connotations in the general culture of being about minor, relatively non-pejorative difference.  It is free of medical baggage.  And it avoids privileging traditional kink activities like sadism, masochism, bondage, leather and fetish over new activities like steampunk, cosplay, furries, and activities not yet named.


The triskelion used as the logo for BDSM,...

The triskelion used as the logo for the US Department of Transportation!

Lest the reader conclude that kink community is special in these naming differences; a theme in this blog is the progression of understanding about sexual deviations, to paraesthesias, to perversions, to paraphilias has gone on in the mental health community.  These terms all refer to similar things, yet changes were made to bring them under medical authority, and to attempt to manage the stigmatizing consequences of diagnosis.  Doctors insist that the language is neutral and scientific, but are nonetheless aware of its iatrogenic consequences, and they walk a tightrope between privileged understanding, desire to avoid stigma, and the desire to have their legitimacy accepted by the larger social context where stigma is prevalent.  It turns out that when the general society is afraid and judgmental about something, terminology’s meanings drift towards the general consensus.  Perversions of reproductive purpose become moral perversions, and the pejorative properties of the term ‘perversion’ that led to the adoption of ‘paraphilia’ come to infest the replacement terminology.  In some corners of the general society, it is not possible to neutralize the language.  Stigma fighting through language alone is tricky business, even when you enjoy medical authority.

Franklin Veaux has created a wonderful glossary of kink and poly (excuse my use of poly for the more accurate but cumbersome consensual non-monogamy terminology.  In no sense am I referring to the inhabitants of Polynesia, Melanesia, or Micronesia!).  I do not intend to replicate his piece here, except to mention a few examples that I think busy clinicians mustn’t miss because many kinky clients are likely to use them.

Franklin Veaux's BDSM Glossary

BDSM is sometimes referred to as ‘the scene’, which has the attractive attribute of being vague and non-specific.  Often language is chosen because it communicates meaning to insiders that are kept opaque to the general public.  Much of this language appears to be lifted from the language of the stage. ‘Scene’ refers to kink in general, but ‘scene’ is also roughly synonymous with ‘session’.  Kinksters contract to perform scenes, or ‘play’ together.  The term ‘play’ means doing kinky behavior together and is derived from ‘sex play’, even though players may or may not regard playing as sexual behavior, and may take it very seriously indeed.  Scenes may be planned in detail, but are generally not scripted in the kind of detail that is expected in drama or stage plays.  They may or may not involve role play with characters such as Frtiz the Cat, Pinkachu, or Dracula.  In cosplay and furrie paly, some people deliberately attempt to take the roles of specific characters, and scripted dialogue sometimes plays a small part in these scenes.  But mostly players play themselves playing the roles.


It is impossible to download stock photos of cartoon furrie characters because of a serious context problem.  Can you spell "Copyright violations!"

In therapy, the wise clinician asks what the client is trying to express when certain language is used.  What does it reveal, what does it conceal, and how does this representation stand in relationship to the client’s desires and self-concept?  Sometimes the use of scene jargon is a test to see how much the clinician knows.  Perhaps it is about acceptance, and the clinician effortlessly understanding the argot is experienced as acceptance, or even sophistication and actual participation in the underground.  Sometimes the jargon is a snow job, an attempt to veneer over conflicts about which the client is defensive.  So clinicians are smart to stay abreast of the language of sexual minorities they treat.  That context frames how clients express themselves.

Sometimes our own language is a thicket, and we do not have to travel far afield to the titillating world of sexual minorities to confront a semiotic Gordian knot that requires untangling.  Take the terms ‘sadism’, ‘masochism’, and ‘sadomasochism’. 
Sadism had no standing in mental health until the work of Krafft-Ebing.  Then it was used to characterize sexual desire to harm or humiliate sexual objects.  With Freud’s popularization of the unconscious, however, the desire need not be known by the client, and its expression became generalized.  With sex in its proper Freudian role as an underlying human motivation, aggression did not need to be consciously expressed to be sadistic.  Furthermore, underlying sadistic motives could be aggressive towards others: as in traditional sadism, or internalized towards the client; as in masochism, and it became proper to speak of sadomasochism.  With the id a dark bundle of socially inappropriate impulses, just about anything could be down there, and aggression towards others that appeared sadistic on the surface might express unconscious sadistic or masochistic impulses.  So the original idea of sadomasochism, that sadism and masochism always occurred together somehow, was not remotely based upon the kind of observations of sexual sadism and masochism carefully recorded in Krafft-Ebing’s case histories.  In Freud’s view, we are all unconscious switches, alternately wielding and submitting to the lash as the occasion and internal drive states warrant.  None of this bore the slightest relationship to fluidity of BDSM expression which was then so underground and uncommon as to be largely unknown to the early 20th century psychiatric profession.  Only the most dedicated and open-minded sexologists, or the kinkiest ones, got access to the underground of their times.

Everything said above about ‘sadism’ applies with equal force to ‘masochism’.  When Freud wrote later in his career about three kinds of masochism; primary, moral, and feminine, he thought of all of them as sexual despite the fact that it was entirely uncommon for any of the three to be observed in direct sexual expression.  For psychology, masochism generally meant aggression expressed towards the ‘self’, another awkward term that is used very differently in mundane conversation than in psychology.  Indeed, in psychoanalysis, the term ‘self’ had no standing whatever as Freud went to considerable lengths to avoid the term.


Heath Ledger's breakthrough performance as The Joker.  Although commonly thought of as 'sadistic', The Joker was never depicted as sexually aroused by his psychoticly evil, mean and destructive behaviors.  Such motives were way too hot for DC Comics all the way back to Batman's origin in the 30's before the notorious comics code.
It scarcely mattered.  This pic was from a Business Insider post about how common 'sadism' is in the workplace!  PSA:  If your boss is the Joker, change your job and your medication immediately!

In kink, ‘sadism’ refers to the preference for inflicting pain on a consenting subject.  ‘Masochist’ refers to the preference for receiving pain.  In both cases, the pain in question is likely to be highly scripted:  only certain pains, inflicted under a limited set of conditions.  Nothing stoops a sadist from being submissive, or a masochist from being dominant, or from being a true algolagniac, who is turned on by giving or receiving pain.

Algolagniacs sound like switches; persons who are dominant in some conditions, but submissive in others.  But here any inference about underlying desire gets confounded by role fulfillment.  The ‘Tower of Babel’ problem not only applies to the definitions of words, but to the definitions of roles.  In mundane life, it may be properly said that most of us are ‘switches, in that we are dominant in some roles and contexts, and submissives in others.  We rarely see this need to conform in sexualized terms, and this does not really correspond to switching in a kink community.  In kink, there are people who are devoted to specific power roles, and there are a tremendous number of Veaux’s terms that refer to the various permutations of top, Dom, and Domme, switch, or sub, submissive or bottom.  I’ll spare you an exhaustive review, but provide several caveats:

•             People take roles out of availability and ability, not just out of passionate desire.
•             People are usually eager to play whatever role they are in well.
•             They are not always articulate about how and why they take the roles they do.
•             People use different criteria to tell when they are satisfied or not in their roles.

So if a person says they are a top, bottom, or switch, they may experience this is a context-dependent behavior or an essential expression of personal authenticity.  The best evidence of the nascent research on BDSM as identity or orientation suggests these power terms are the best approximation in kink of the identifications that are more extensively studied in queer theory.  So the power exchange terminology is the first place to look in treatment for signs of kink identity.

In the kink subcultures, Dom and Domme generally connote someone who is committed to the role, either socially, or in a primary relationship.  Top usually connotes a less committed or temporary assumption of the dominant role.  Likewise, for submissive and bottom.  Subs tend to be identified as submissive in a wide variety of their interactions, and bottoming is something that one might do only with certain partners or for a specific event.  Fluidity varies: some people express a lot of it, others very little.

Dominant in real life?  Most likely a model!
It is a chancy business predicting people's real life behaviors from their preferred kinky roles or identifications.

Some may debate this, but my limited observations of a few BDSM social organizations suggests that white and male privileges are modestly attenuated, but still present, and that Dominants are privileged over switches over bottoms.  This is reflected in the 2014 Consent Violations Survey.  Males and tops were least likely to report violations, switches were in the middle, and bottoms, females, and the gender fluid were most likely to report violations.  This is true despite a vast body of anecdotal evidence that in aggregate, people’s kinky roles correlate poorly with their Real Life roles.  I’m frankly more convinced by stories of top corporate execs who chose to bottom in BDSM than meek shop girls who magically transform to imposing Goddesses of the Night.  Perhaps role choice and flexibility, even in BDSM, reflects Real Life privilege behind the masks, costumes and rituals of dark theater. But it is true that the community rules for safety and anonymity make it harder to bring mundane signals of dominance and privilege into the special space of the dungeon.

Although clinicians like to be sensitive, and clients do not feel accepted when they have to explain the basic assumptions of BDSM to clinicians who haven’t taken the time and trouble to acquire the kind of basic information conveyed by this blog about The Scene, close listening is not likely to resolve all questions when the language overlaps but has specific meanings in kinky, mundane, and clinical contexts.  Hopefully, this post gives clinicians encouragement to learn kink subculture, but also to be unclear and to ask empathetic questions of their clients.  When you are puzzled and curious, it is often better to ask the clients about their feelings than to try to have the answer for them.


© Russell J Stambaugh, January 2016, Ann Arbor MI, All rights reserved

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