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Techniques of PleasureReview - Techniques of Pleasure
BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
by Margot Weiss
Duke University Press, 2012
Review by Sharon Packer, MD
Oct 30th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 44)

Silly me. I had been reading about neural circuits involved in opiate addiction and so I made a foolish assumption. By interpreting the word “circuits” concretely, I reflexively expected that this book would explain why some individuals’ neural circuits overproduce or reroute pain-induced endorphins (the brain’s natural opiates). I wondered if researchers had identified a gene that causes some people’s paradoxical responses to receiving or inflicting pain. Such information could be valuable in addressing prescription opiate addiction, which has been on the rise in America. It might illuminate why persons with borderline personality disorders experience relief, rather than pain, from cutting, burning or other self-injuries.   

Apparently, my imagination ran way ahead of the text. Like Proust’s proverbial Madeleine, a single word set off a whirlwind of associations that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. So much for free associations. For sure, it would be interesting to see if Weiss’ San Francisco-based subjects have unique neurochemical characteristics--but Weiss’s book posits unexpected economic explanations instead.   

Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality is a book by an anthropologist, for anthropologists. It is not directed toward mental health practitioners, although some might find it interesting, but not directly clinically applicable.  At the book’s beginning, there is a glossary of SMBD jargon that acquaints the reader with sado-masochistic and bondage & discipline world. Techniques of Pleasure appeared before Fifty Shades of Grey soared to best-seller status, but shortly after reports about a NY-based district attorney/amateur dominatrix made the front page of the New York Post, and interrupted 1010 WINS radio traffic reports when she was fired unfairly. Clearly, Weiss’ research was picking up a pulse that perhaps started in San Francisco (like so many other historic counterculture happenings), but is now traversing across America.  

Even the most devout biopsychiatrists will wonder why so little is said about the multitude of psychodynamic or psychoanalytic explanations for BDSM (bondage discipline sadomasochism) behavior.  Robert Stoller’s name appears in the bibliography, but not in the index, and, even then, only one of his many specialized books on the subject is mentioned. Fortunately, in a footnote, Weiss explains why she sidesteps psychiatric approaches and why she is unconcerned with pathologizing –or de-pathologizing behavior. Although she alludes to DSM, the Diagnostic & Statistic Manual that functions as the psychiatric Bible, she makes it clear that psychological rights or wrongs of those who receive or inflict pain are irrelevant to her study.

Weiss is even less preoccupied with the moral rights and wrongs, although she does address the high profile behavior of a British official who dressed in Nazi garb, not as a political statement but as an enactment of a sexual fetish related to BDSM, known as “Nazi play”. The book discusses the exploitative torture photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison incident, as well as the racist (or lack of racist) implications of recreations of realistic slave auction scenes that recollect the antebellum American South. These ethical and philosophical debates are accessible to non-anthropologists, and, to me, are the most interesting aspects of the book.

The introduction to Techniques of Pleasure alerts us to the moral paradoxes that abound in the enclave that Weiss describes. A tongue-in-cheek description of Byzantine Slave Auction fundraiser, where the proceeds are donated to a designated charity, reminds us of more ordinary fundraisers hosted by the Kiwanis Club, the Boy Scouts or Bnai Brith.  

The book makes it clear that the pro-social leather community under study does not overlap with the antisocial world of Hells’ Angels, who may dress similarly to her leathermen and leatherwomen, but think and act very dissimilarly, and exploit society, rather than support society. We soon accept that this subculture does indeed function as a circumscribed world of its own, with its own social values and codes of conduct. Yet at the same time, this community mirrors the values of the more “ordinary” world-at-large, and highlights those values.

By beginning her book with a colorful description of a charitable sex slave auction, Weiss prepares us for her underlying thesis, that this SMBD community that hosts fund-raising auctions (and purchases specialized sex toys and sometimes monetizes sexual interchanges) is a function of a late capitalist economy.  She connects the auction and other purchased equipment to an economic system, rather than to a neural circuit, and certainly not to psychodynamic motivators.

At this point, I realize that my psychiatric education and experience have not prepared me for this economic discourse. I can neither accept nor reject this hypothesis—but can’t help but think about “the world’s oldest profession” and wonder how it thrived before the concepts of either “capitalism” or “communism” came into existence. Again, this shortcoming may be my own.   

To clarify this complicated concept, Weiss invokes the name of one of her many French intellectual mentors: Michel Foucault. (Elsewhere in the book, she references French thinkers such as Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Sade, whose once-pornographic works are now studied as sociology or philosophy.) Foucault’s name is familiar to psychiatrists who came of age during the counterculture, and is also well-known to students of the history or philosophy of psychiatry.  

Foucault joined the wave of anti-psychiatry theorists and activists when it was fashionable. First, he earned certificates in psychology as well as philosophy. In the 1960s and 1970s, Foucault wrote many influential books, including Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (French 1961; English translation, 1964), The Birth of the Clinic (French, 1963; English translation, 1973), and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (French, 1975; English translation, 1977).  

Foucault compared psychiatric institutions to prisons, and hypothesized that madness became stigmatized during the Age of Reason, not so much because “reason” was overvalued, but because burgeoning capitalist economies could not tolerate citizens who did not contribute to the economy.  Many of Foucault’s facts are flawed, but his overarching theories still carry cache, not just for Weiss, but for anyone who questions the links between psychiatric authority, political power, and state control of individual autonomy.  Those questions are hardly proprietary to mental health, and are equally important to as law, political science, criminal justice and philosophy in general.

Foucault’s scholarship extended to The History of Sexuality (French 1967, English translation 1978). Foucault argued that individual identity became increasingly tied to sexual identity in the 18th and 19th centuries—but only in the Western world. He attributed increased sexual repression from the late 17th century through the early 20th century to the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society. With this information in mind, the origins of Weiss’ contention that open SM subcultures are products of late capitalism become clearer, but her conclusion nevertheless requires confirmation—or refutation—by economic historians. I suspect that historians of psychiatry who focus on 19th century sexologists—such as Krafft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, for starters—could make important contributions to Weiss’ contention.    

Foucault’s lifestyle peaks the interest of psychiatrists and philosophers as much as his life works, for Foucault himself was an avid devotee of sadomasochism. He sought out pseudo-imprisonment but condemned prison-like psychiatric hospitals that do not allow individual choice or control. As much as he spoke out against “confinement,” he had himself admitted to psychiatric hospitals repeatedly whenever his depression approached suicidal proportions.  

In The Passion of Michel Foucault (Simon and Schuster, 1993), James Miller offers comprehensive (one might say “uncensored”) information on Foucault’s not-so-private private life. Roger Kimball’s review of Miller’s book for The New Criterion (“The Perversions of M. Foucault,” March, 1993), has a completely different take on Foucault’s life and Miller’s perspective, and is worth reading and readily available online.

 Foucault died early in the AIDS epidemic, having developed HIV-related neurological problems before succumbing in 1984.  Ironically, Foucault identified himself as a “Nietzschean.”  Nietzsche was similarly intrigued by power and supermen, and was also ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease, neurosyphilis, which was endemic during his lifetime. Many say that Nietzsche’s later writings show the influence of neurosyphilis, which has been linked to grandiosity and mania. At the time of this writing, it is too premature to connect Foucault’s theories to his neurological disease, since our data base on HIV-AIDS-related neuropsychiatric effects is growing, but is nowhere near as complete as our knowledge of neurosyphilis.

But I digress. This book is not about Foucault and his ideas, even though his name reappears often in the text and his influence looms.  Weiss reminds us that most academic studies of sado-masochism were conducted by psychoanalysts, who made inferences from “non-representative samples” who sought treatment because their inclinations or activities distressed them. By implication, many mental health professionals who encounter such persons reflexively pathologize such behaviors and attempt to change them. There is a passing reference to “kink-aware” doctors who treat SMBD practitioners and their medical complications dispassionately.

In summary, this study opens more questions than it answers. It will be interesting to see if Weiss’ book (or related research) revitalizes interest in Foucault’s life and works, three decades after his death. Still, I expect that psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners will come away with the awareness that anthropologists approach data very differently than clinicians. If nothing else, this book will remind practitioners to ask more questions of our “ordinary” patients, who may be disinclined to share important aspects of their private lives unless directly queried.  


© 2012 Sharon Packer


Sharon Packer, MD is a psychiatrist who is in private practice in Soho (NYC) and Woodstock, NY. She is an Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books include Dreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger, 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) and Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks (Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2010). In press or in production are Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) and Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013, co-edited with J. Pennington, PhD.) She can be contacted at .


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