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BDSM is a Strategic Game wherein We Erotisize Power: Foucault’s Five Principles

January 19, 2021
8 mins read
BDSM, akin to a strategic game of chess, allows individuals to explore and disrupt traditional power dynamics, redefining pleasure through unexpected mediums and scenarios. Instead of confining oneself to a singular identity, BDSM opens a vast landscape of identity explorations, making every experience an adventurous journey in understanding and rediscovering pleasure.

I experienced my first BDSM scene relatively late, at 24. From that day on, I have been searching for the philosophical meaning behind the kinky practice. This intersection between the path of becoming during my twenties and being exposed to a whole new dimension of my sexual desire led me to a general question: Why did it happen to me? How was it related to my inner world? Was it related to my childhood? Is there a suppressed ‘evil’ manifesting through the experience?

This inquiry of my Geist and that of conscious BDSM play itself lasted some while. Through gaining more experience in the field of play and more knowledge about the concept, I realized that it is not related to anything terrible, anything deep down. Instead, it is just a different kind of pleasure on the very surface.

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash
BDSM
Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash

Once I encountered Foucault’s thoughts on BDSM and sexuality, it illuminated many obscurities. It helped me to organize my feelings and thoughts about kinky life. They are still not the last words, but a very interesting and seminal perspective. I guess it is noteworthy that Foucault was an active practitioner and did not hesitate to publicly show his kinky side as a prominent thinker of his time.

In this piece, I collected his thoughts and categorized them under five principles, suggestions, or directions that can lead many people inside and outside the play to answer their questions or obtain a new perspective on BDSM and general sexuality.

1. BDSM is a new possibility for pleasure

It is the question I asked myself when I experienced my first kinky scene. Does our sexuality represent our essence, implicit meaning, or deep identity? “Tell me your desires, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Can the motto with which the 19th century was obsessed be a guideline to understand our core? Is there any “the truth of one’s sex” that we should undertake to discover lifelong? And, importantly, can BDSM be understood as an expression of inherent violence? Foucault has a straightforward answer, “no!”. But let’s scrutinize why he thinks so.

First and foremost, Foucault suggests avoiding seeing sexual desire as being the center of human pleasure. It is a way of essentialism that we should omit. Sexuality is about our freedom. It is an experimental field wherein we create new types of relations, novel loves, and new meanings. It is a field of play wherein we make ourselves. “Sex is not a fatality: it’s a possibility for creative life.” In this sense of sexuality, our understanding of BDSM changes too.

The idea that S&M [sadomasochism] is related to a deep violence, that S&M practice is a way of liberating this violence, this aggression, is stupid. We know very well what all those people are doing is not aggressive; they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body. (“Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity”)

2. BDSM lets us use the full capacity of our body to reach high pleasure

To perceive “sexual desire as the root of all our possible pleasure” seems entirely wrong to Foucault. Instead, we must “produce pleasure with very odd things, strange parts of our bodies, in very unusual situations.” First, Let’s start with understanding these “very odd things.”

In his interview, Foucault mentioned that drugs are the primary pleasure giver and insisted that they be an integral part of our culture. We shouldn’t exclude and restrict it. As for BDSM practices, the number of extraordinary things is endless. I can name some of my favorite bizarre things that many practitioners use and enjoy in various scenes: a ball gag to restrict the ones to talk and breath, a rope to restrain your partner or use for yourself if you like, or collarschokersfloggerswhips and many other different kinds of tools.

Also, BDSM practitioners use very strange parts of their bodies. It can be a finger, maybe a foot, perhaps a neck, or another leg to reach arousal and pleasure. The idea is ” to use every part of the body as a sexual instrument.” In many different BDSM sessions, genitals are suspended to be the center of the play. That is, they are decentered. While instrumentalizing their bodies, the practitioners gain a chance to enrich the sources of bodily pleasure.

By the desexualization of pleasure, Foucault first let us liberate our joy from the hegemony of sexual desire and set our inner creative- and transformative power free and open to reach different enjoyments. Then, by instrumentalizing the body, he distracts our attention from genitals to other parts, odd things, and situations to enrich our joy. All this process is for him is an integral part of freedom, self-creation, and transformation. And how far they will go and change is up to one’s sense of adventure.

3. BDSM is a strategic game wherein we eroticize power

Foucault depicts a fundamental characteristic of BDSM as the eroticization of power. I don’t intend to lecture here on what he, the philosopher of the notion, means. But merely putting, for him, power is not something coming from a center, applied from top to bottom. For him, power is relational, operates as circulation, and involves strategic relations that exist almost everywhere inside sexuality. And BDSM is not the only activity through which we eroticize strategic relations. There are more.

S&M [sadomasochism] is the use of a strategic relationship as a source of pleasure (physical pleasure). It is not the first time that people have used strategic relations as a source of pleasure. For instance, in the Middle Ages there was the institution of “courtly love,” the troubadour, the institutions of the love relationships between the lady and the lover, and so on. That, too, was a strategic game. You even find this between boys and girls when they are dancing on Saturday night. They are acting out strategic relations. What is interesting is that, in this heterosexual life, those strategic relations come before sex. It’s a strategic relation in order to obtain sex. And in S&M those strategic relations are inside sex, as a convention of pleasure within a particular situation. (ibid)

Unlike the social and institutional power wherein strategic relations are fixed, in BDSM plays, these relations are fluid. That is,

… there are roles, but everybody knows very well that those roles can be reversed. Sometimes the scene begins with the master and slave, and at the end the slave has become the master. Or, even when the roles are stabilized, you know very well that it is always a game. Either the rules are transgressed, or there is an agreement, either explicit or tacit, that makes them aware of certain boundaries. This strategic game as a source of bodily pleasure is very interesting. But I wouldn’t say that it is a reproduction, inside the erotic relationship, of the structures of power. It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure. (ibid)

4. We play BDSM mutually as how we play Chess

Consent is the fundamental mindset behind BDSM. If there is no mutual and explicit consent, there is no BDSM but violence. The next important principle is the Reciprocity of Pleasure. Some practitioners stop differentiating between “playing” and — let’s call it — “adulting,” their kinky roles slip into their social interaction with each other and potentially overproduce common (abusive) intersectional realities, like “dominant man” vs. “submissive woman.” It is probable that roles such as Dominant/submissive and Master/slave also confuse outsiders and practitioners about kinky dynamics’ mutuality. As a matter of bottom position, submissive and slave are supposed to “serve” in sessions. But it doesn’t mean that their pleasure can be ignored. On the contrary, the pleasure of the submissive plays a significant role.

To clarify this point, Foucault developed a chess analogy and explained power dynamics between players.

S&M [sadomasochism] is not a relationship between he (or she) who suffers and he (or she) who inflicts suffering, but between the master and the one on whom he exercises his mastery. What interests the practitioners of S&M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open. It resembles a chess game in the sense that one can win and the other lose. The master can lose in the S&M game if he finds he is unable to respond to the needs and trials of his victim. Conversely, the servant can lose if he fails to meet or can’t stand meeting the challenge thrown at him by the master. This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty, which the simple consummation of the act lacks. (“Sexual Choice, Sexual Act”)

So, in BDSM, regardless of roles, both sides can fail due to their incapability. We shouldn’t forget that mutuality of pleasure is as essential as consent itself to play.

5. (BDSM) Identity shouldn’t be an obstacle in front of self-transformation

Identities constructed on a particular role are so significant that almost all communication, interactions, and relations are constituted through them. Most of the time, it is the identity that brings new aspects to the field of play. Besides the ones I have already mentioned, they can be tremendously varied: Daddy, Mommy, Mistress, little girl, little boy, pet, property, teacher, nurse, and doctor are just some more usual ones in a realm of maybe thousands of creative possibilities and combinations. And all of them have quite emotional and profound meanings for the performers. Yet, sometimes, they can hinder players from changing. One can internalize the identity so that it can function as a wall in front of one’s self-transformation. At that point, Foucault suggests another principle.

Well, if identity is only a game, if it is only a procedure to have relations, social, and sexual-pleasure relationships that create new friendships, it is useful. But if identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think that they have to “uncover” their “own identity,” and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is “Does this thing conform to my identity?” then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it must be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring. We must not exclude identity if people find their pleasure through this identity, but we must not think of this identity as an ethical universal rule. (“Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity”)

Let’s array all the principles once again:

  1. BDSM is a new possibility to innovate our pleasure sources rather than a rigid deep identity or essence;
  2. BDSM is a practice wherein we liberate our pleasure by instrumentalizing different parts of our body, using bizarre things, and entering into odd situations;
  3. BDSM is an activity wherein we erotize and disrupt power and strategic human relations to reach different types of enjoyment;
  4. BDSM is a strategic game like Chess; it is mutually played, and all sides can fail because of incapability;
  5. BDSM identity is not a code of existence; it can be an endless field of identity possibilities and upcoming adventures.

In a nutshell: Stay open and explore yourself!

Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

Photo by Max Micallef on Unsplash
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Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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