BDSM AS RELIGIOUS PRACTICE

BDSM, which stands for bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism, has always been a topic that has sparked my interest due to its complex psychological implications and its place in the lives of some of, but not all, of the members of the kink community. Due to my interdisciplinary psychology and religious studies medial, I have been able to analyze certain parts of human sexuality from a religious studies perspective; thus, I have found that BDSM has some of the qualities of religious/spiritual practice. However, this discussion is dependent on how one defines religious practice—so for the purpose of this blog, I will define religious practice as a means of self-expression, community fostering, relationship building, connection to an “other”, and a type of transforative experience.

First, it is important to note that BDSM activities are used in some contemporary, non-western religious practices. In The Religious Studies Podcast, Alison Robertson, a British religious studies scholar, describes how some contemporary pagans will use sadistic activities in their rituals to offer their bodies as a sacrifice to their deities or to achieve the ‘sacred whore’ archetype as a key component in some scared rituals. In addition, some traditions use self-harm practices in their sacred right of passage, such as the indigenous tradition of the Sundance, in which young males show their bravery and discipline by piercing their skin with hooks attached to a pole and dance until the hooks rip out of their skin. All of these practices may seem extremely unconventional to those who practice western religions, like how BDSM may be seen by some as an unconventional expression of sexuality. But pain in the form of religious ecstasy has evidently been around for centuries and still continues to be used today.

The kink community is arguably one of a kind. Yet, from an analytic perspective, it shares some characteristics with religion and religious practice. BDSM has created a community for like-minded individuals to congregate and share their experiences and beliefs about relationships, life, and their sexuality, much like how religious communities do. Some of the BDSM play could be comparable with ritual practice, as ritual is defined as a “stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities of forces on behalf of the actor’s goals and interest” (Carlstöm, 210). Some forms of BDSM play have scripts and props, and the use of certain jargon that could fit into this definition of “ritual”. Within these communities, members of the kink community engage in BDSM for plenty of reasons, such as arousal, connection, and stimulation. But all in all, BDSM actively creates meaning in their lives by helping them to express themselves, by pushing the limits in their conceptions of the world around them and their selves, along with fostering a relationship with the world, people in their lives, and a sense of sexual other (Cotter & Robertson, 2016). Some, like the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lecan, like to describe this connection to the other as ‘jouissance’ or the physical, psychological, or spiritual experiences of immense ecstasy in waking of extreme pain; BDSM could be considered a means to achieve this erotic, mystical connection. For people with the inclination, BDSM provides these emotional, psychological, and even spiritual outlets for the members of the kink community that may even satisfy the desire for connection that some traditional religious practices have done in the past.

Yet, not one BDSM experience is like another; they all have their own idiosyncrasies that are extremely personal to the individual and their preferences. This uniqueness is why one might consider BSDM as a more spiritual, mystical experience rather than as a religious experience, given that the term “religious” may suggest a more rigid, authoritative means of being (Cotter & Robertson, 2016). Personally, I would consider “religious” and “spiritual” experiences as relatively similar because the differences may be too minuscule to consider. But drawing upon the mystical, some members of the kink community have reported that their play has facilitated alternate states of consciousness like some mystical, religious practices do—just think of the process of deep meditation or the Indigenous practice of the sweat lodge. In The Religious Studies Podcast, it was recounted that the experience of sub-spacing--an altered psychological experience that a submissive may experience during BDSM activity--could be considered similar to mystical/religious transcendence. In the podcast, a person who had experienced sub-spacing reported that they hallucinated that their dominant partner was sitting crossed-legged on the ceiling and that they would not come down (Cotter & Robertson, 2016). Thus, it could be argued that BDSM can be a means to transformative psychological states that religious/mystical practices also aim to achieve.

BDSM can and has provoked mixed reviews from the general public. Some people get a little freaked out when ropes are mentioned in the same context as sex or when they see someone reading 50 Shades of Grey in public. This reaction is unfortunate because some people who identify with the kink community might not feel accepted by their peers. Finding ways to normalize BDSM and ways to spread accurate information to the public might be one way in which we can create a more accepting atmosphere for members of the kink community. By shaping BDSM in the light of religious practice, this perspective might allow people to fully understand the impact that BDSM has on these people’s lives and correct any false notions of what it is like to engage in BDSM. Normalizing pain in the sense of pleasure and showing that it has been a part of human and religious traditions for centuries may help change the discourse and prejudice around kinky practices and perhaps shift the paradigm with respect to how BDSM and kink are seen by members of the general public.

Meghan O’Sullivan, B.A Psychology & Religious Studies, Queen’s University

References

Carlström, C. (2018) BDSM, Interaction Rituals and Open Bodies. Sexuality & Culture, 22, 209-219.

Cotter, C. R., & Robersron, D. G.  (2016, May 23). BDSM as Religious Practice. The Religious Studies Project, [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com

Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!

When reading through magazines detailing the similarities between famous and everyday people, the reader is often exposed to makeup and airbrush-free celebrities performing mundane activities like taking out the garbage, going for a run, or picking up a smoothie at the local health food store.  In fact, people share much more in common with celebrities than just household chores: health conditions, disorders, dysfunctions and struggles connect noncelebrities with celebrities who previously were just seen as famous, beautiful people in the spotlight.  Advocating for personal health issues and gender identity struggles is a relatively common phenomenon for celebrities, and while there are obvious benefits to attention being brought to these causes, negative consequences may also ensue due to these celebrities shining the spotlight on their conditions.

By bringing much-needed attention to valuable causes, celebrities sharing their stories of stigmatized health conditions can evoke positive responses, such as increased education and awareness, financial support, and lessening the perceived stigma.  Angelina Jolie used her celebrity status to educate the public on breast cancer awareness, prevention, and treatment options.  Jolie discovered in 2013 that she was a carrier of the BRCA1 susceptibility gene, which can be responsible for 45% of inherited breast cancer and more than 80% of inherited breast and ovarian cancer (Castilla et al., 1994), and opted for a preventative double mastectomy. She outlined her decisions in a personal article published in The New York Times, where she explained that she chose to share in order to help other women in the same situation (Jolie, 2013). The ‘Angelina Jolie effect’ is an actual phenomenon, representing the increased awareness of breast cancer treatment and surgical options that took place following the release of Jolie’s story, showing how influential celebrity advocacy can be on the general population (Parry, 2015).

Other celebrities, such as LGBTQ+ activist and transwoman Laverne Cox, have become role models for young people facing similar situations and through advocating their cause, can affect social change.  Cox herself was the first transgender person to ever be nominated for an Emmy award and was the first transgender person to appear on the cover of TIME magazine (Gjorgievska & Rothman 2014).  By using the media hype to her advantage, Cox is inspiring young LGBTQ+ individuals.  Laverne Cox has lessened the stigma on trans people by advocating her cause and she helped to empower other individuals with gender identity struggles.

Padma Lakshmi, television personality, model, and author has used her personal illness to inspire donations and financial support for endometriosis research.  Endometriosis is a reproductive disorder, affecting approximately 176 million women and girls worldwide (Endofound.org, 2015), where endometrial tissue implants in abnormal locations. In 2009, in partnership with her doctor Dr. Tamer Seckin, Lakshmi founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, or Endofound for short. Padma Lakshmi admitted that she had never heard of the disease until her diagnosis at the age of 36, and felt that the lack of available information was problematic (Endofound.org, 2015). The organization holds a yearly medical conference and numerous campaigns to fund research for the painful disease (Endofound.org, 2015).  Padma Lakshmi’s openness about her seemingly personal reproductive disorder has helped to open the floor for research on, and discussion about, treatment options for the millions of women worldwide silently suffering from endometriosis.

While sharing their stories and advocating for change can lead to progress in research, education and treatments, there are also downsides to having stars talk about their personal battles with health.  Celebrities have access to elite and expensive care, or radical and unconventional treatments that may not represent what is available to the general public.  Caitlin Jenner’s transition represents a transgender experience that is “far from the norm.”  While her impact on the transgender community may have been a positive step towards awareness and equality through the extensive media coverage, Jenner had access to the best doctors, treatments and stylists, which is far from the case for most transgender individuals (Grinberg 2015).  Jenner’s coming out was a positive step for the transgender community—working towards lessening the stigma of gender identity struggle—but it nevertheless displays an unrealistic expectation of a gender transition.

Similarly, Lena Dunham’s (creator, writer, and star of the HBO series Girls [2012-2017]) experience with endometriosis, ultimately leading to the removal of her uterus is a radical treatment option that would not be recommended to most women inflicted with endometriosis (Dunham, 2018).  By sharing their stories, people may be lead to think that the particular treatment is the only option, like Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy or Lena Dunham’s hysterectomy.  These therapies are not conventional, and advocating for uncommon treatments may be risky.  While a treatment option may be successful for one person, it may not be universally effective, showing how important it is to seek individualized attention, rather than information based on stories in the media.

It is important to recognize that while a celebrity with a similar experience may give valuable advice and education on the topic, ultimately, stars are not physicians.  Opening the floor to discuss their health stories has many great benefits to improve awareness and decrease stigma on all sorts of issues—even sexuality-related health problems; however, celebrities should not be treated as experts.  People need to be proactive with regards to their own health, and use the testimonies of celebrities as inspiration to advocate for themselves.

Amanda Szpindel, BAH, Queen’s University

References

Gjorgievska, Aleksandra, and Lily Rothman. “Laverne Cox Becomes First Transgender Person Nominated for an Emmy.” Time, Time, 10 July 2014, time.com/2973497/laverne-cox-emmy/.

Grinberg, Emanuella. “What it's like to be transgender and not Caitlyn Jenner.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 July 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/06/03/living/caitlyn-jenner-transgender-reaction-feat/index.html.

Jolie, Angelina. “Opinion | My Medical Choice by Angelina Jolie.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 May 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/opinion/my-medical-choice.html.

“Padma Lakshmi's Personal Cause: The Endometriosis Foundation of America - Women’s Health.” Endometriosis : Causes - Symptoms - Diagnosis - and Treatment, 12 Mar. 2015, www.endofound.org/padma-lakshmi-s-personal-cause-the-endometriosis-foundation-of-america.

Parry, Lizzie. “'Angelina Jolie effect' IS real: Actress' double mastectomy and reconstruction has raised awareness of cancer treatment.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 28 Sept. 2015, www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3252402/Angelina-Jolie-effect-real-Actress-double-mastectomy-reconstruction-raised-awareness-cancer-treatment.html.