What do you buy the Fetish Diva who has everything?
October was another busy month. I met up with Midori whilst she was visiting London for the Skin Two Rubber Ball weekend. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill received its second reading in the UK's House of Commons, and I attended a rope event in Coventry to practice escapology. I had two ties during the afternoon and escaped from them both, but they took me far longer than they should have done.
Dr Meg Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology at a London University and works part time at a Sex and Relationship Clinic. Her research has included the UK's bisexual, polyamorous and SM communities, and she works closely with those groups to gain a close understanding of relationship structures and sexual practices. This month her latest book is published, co-edited with Darren Langdridge, called "Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism" (it can be ordered from Amazon here). She kindly agreed to be interviewed for this column:
Would you say that you're in a minority for that viewpoint?
It's a growing minority, I would say, but it is still a minority amongst psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psychologists. I think the majority out there think that SM is pathological in some way - and that's reflected by the fact it's still listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in section 302 and The International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD) in section F-65.
What Darren and I and a few others want to do is draw the line between consensual and non-consensual behaviour. We like the psychiatrist Chess Denman's idea that any sex which is coercive should be dealt with in a criminal way, and anything which is just transgressive shouldn't be seen as a disorder, or pathologised or criminalised.
Dr Meg Barker
I met one psychologist at a fetish club who argued that SM should still be in the DSM and ICD because "it wasn't right for everyone". Well, flying a plane isn't right for everyone but we don't make that a mental illness! He seemed quite happy to have it as an option.
I don't think it should be at all. The things which are in the DSM are supposed to be there because they adversely affect people's lives. SM certainly does not adversely affect the lives of most who practice it. The statistics are that over 65% of people have had bondage fantasies, and a similarly high amount for spanking. These are incredibly common fantasies and practices. Just the other day I saw a display of SM erotica books in the front of Waterstones on Oxford Street. More and more so as it becomes more acceptable in the mainstream to do something "a bit kinky". It just doesn't make any sense any more for it to be in there.
Any aspect of sexuality that troubles people that they actually feel is detrimental to them - then it's appropriate for them to deal with that psychotherapeutically. But that could be any kind of thing that they do, there's no reason to think that SM activities fall into that category any more than anything else, other than the fact that they're very stigmatised in our society so people can get worried about the fact that they're doing them or thinking about them. But generally once people find a community and realise that there are lots of other people like them that falls away.
There doesn't seem to be very much data on the SM community and what there is is self-selecting. If psychologists have only done a summary of people who've come to them for help, then they usually find that 100% of SM players need help...
The people who've done the best research on this are academics like Dr Charles Moser and co who've studied whole communities, like in San Francisco and places like that. And when you're studying large groups you find no difference between SM players and anyone else in terms of well being or mental distress.
There does seem to be an innate prejudice in society against any activities which are kinkier than the sex you do yourself.
Yes, people tend to draw those lines. That's something I'm very interested in as a psychologist as to why we're so scared of anything that's different, and why we have to police the boundaries between what we do and what other people do, trying to prove that what they do is abnormal, unnatural or wrong. I think a lot of it's about shoring up our own identity and trying to make us feel comfortable - but we don't need to put other people down in order to make ourselves feel comfortable.
There's just as much prejudice within the SM community itself towards kink which is more extreme than you're prepared to do. I've lost count of the number of times people have said to me "I have the usual limits" ... well, what are "the usual limits"?
Absolutely. We can all slip into that thinking that someone else's fetish is not okay. There's a great quote by Gayle Rubin: 'Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere...Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone'.
I was at one of your presentations earlier this year, called "13 Myths about SM, what every counsellor should know". It was quite a revelation to me, because even though I think I'm okay with all forms of SM sometimes I'm at an event and I find myself thinking "these people are weird!"
But everyone's weird! We get drummed into us all the time a certain norm of sex, the Hollywood-ised version of it, which isn't actually like the kind of sex that anyone's having. There's some very useful stuff at www.fsd-alert.org about current attitudes towards sex and what's problematic about them.
What do you think of the UK Government's proposals to criminalise possession of extreme pornography?
I'm very much against it because I think there's a very real danger of criminalising consensual SM images, including those that are used to educate people and help them practice in risk-aware and consensual ways. The proposed law needs to consider the whole issue of consent or non-consent which is hardly in there at all at the moment. Also the evidence is so shaky on this. There's very little evidence that images of these things have any causal relationship with people being violent or sexually violent. Laws should be based on what evidence there is.
I help to organise a seminar series called Critical Sexology and next April we're doing a session on these issues around extreme pornography. It's free and everyone's welcome.
Hanging around in Coventry, waiting for a chance to escape.
Why do you think that you were exposed to the communities you were studying and came to a pro-sex viewpoint, when so many other academics have come to the opposite conclusion?
It's partly a historical thing. From the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries there's been a real desire to categorise sexual behaviours and to list the ones which are pathological and the ones which aren't. Sex seems to have been a big arena for delineating who's normal and who's abnormal. So for any psychologist getting involved in this area now that's the starting point. You'll find these things in "abnormal psychology" textbooks, so it takes a bit of a leap to see SM as just one of many aspects of diverse human behaviour.
One of the things I have a real problem with a lot of psychologists is that they assume there's only one reason why people are into SM, and it must be because they were traumatised or abused or whatever. There are different reasons for different people. Something I've come across in my research is that it you ask ten different people why they enjoy spanking or needle play you'll get ten different reasons ranging from endorphin rush to acting out certain fantasies or for other people it's healing painful memories.
Or even between the same players on different occasions....
Or you can have multiple reasons even during the same scene! That's kind of what's exciting about it for many people, it allows you to explore different aspects of yourself.
If someone wants to contact you or invite you to give a presentation how should they contact you?
Please email me, I'm happy to do workshops. My email address is on my website: www.megbarker.com
Thank you and best wishes for your research.
Have fun, look after yourselves and the people you play with.
International Mr Leather 2003