As a member of various fetish and BDSM communities I have been silent on the topic of identity related to those communities, primarily because the unity of identity is important to the salience of the community and to the continuance of an open and supportive environment for those who feel that they have a sexual identity that does not reflect those that are portrayed in popular media. As a child growing up in the South I did not exactly have an environment that was open and accepting of homosexuals or any other form of queerness and as such I recognize the importance of there being the presence (or at least the illusion) of a community for those who do not seem to fit in with the normative world and their geographic community’s “standards”.
As an academic, feminist, queer theorist and supporter of universal equality I can no longer stand by silently and allow some of the behaviors and assumptions of those communities go without critique. While the BDSM and fetish communities may seem open and welcoming to many, especially those who make personal contact with someone in the community, to others it can be frightening. Imagine just becoming aware of your sexuality, realizing that leather and some forms of bondage excite you, or at the very least it is something you are curious about and attempting to discover if there are others like you only to be greeted with imagery of men clad entirely in leather with violent themes of whipping, flogging and other forms of domination. That is a very strong image that the BDSM community portrays and to someone just exploring that can be somewhat overwhelming and also cause a bit of concern coming from a normative background and being faced with the potential that you must accept that imagery as a potential part of yourself. While ultimately the person will navigate the imagery and find his or her own place, that initial presentation combined with assumptions of normativity can be concerning.
Initial contact with the community aside, the community’s views and assumptions are very narrow. Once a person is initiated into the community there is the typical question of “are you top or bottom?” or “are you dom or sub?” or any of thousands of other phrasings of asking the same question. The duality of the question requires the individual to answer one option or the other, and for some it must become an identity that they accept and live with for their duration of their interaction with the community. The question assumes that there are only two options. While many of us do know better, we know the secret of door #3, the door precariously labeled “switch”. In our community though, how do we treat “switch”? It has a negative connotation, usually reserved for bi-sexuals or “curious” individuals (a topic for another post). Even the name “switch” implies that there is no hybridity, only two options which a person must choose from when approaching another person. The identity roles involved in the D/S component of BDSM are too easy to fall back on for both BDSM and fetish players/participants. Bondage & Discipline do not imply that there must be a separation of the identities, only imply that there will be an active role and a more passive role, but the duration is not specified. It does not have to be for a lifetime, an evening, a session or even for a moment. It is entirely possible for the roles to overlap somewhat at the same time, so there is no need to restrict the roles. This applies similarly to the sadism/masochism component as well. While temporarily is not a real limiting factor of the D/S component, the general functioning of the D/S community does rely on roles that are either static, predictable or situationally determined (competition for dominance). Dominance and submission has overflown from its own space to all aspects of BDSM (B/D, D/S, S/M) and even into fetish. In this overflow of identity upon other identity it is clear that identity has become a more central component of the community than the experience. The experience should not be lost for the good of the identity or else the identity is worthless.
Now to step back a moment. In this argument I am not saying that people who identify as 100% dominant or 100% submissive are in any way wrong for their desires and feelings. They should be able to express themselves just as much as anyone else, but I believe that any space between has been disregarded. Anyone identifying as having a fetish or BDSM interest is assumed to also carry a D/S identity or to embrace many aspects of the community when in fact it is also possible for a person to only be interested in limited aspects.
Another problem, somewhat more minor, but still present is the “hardcore” identity which exists inside the walled garden of BDSM. I don’t know if it is a hold-over from radical gay liberation, an attempt to defend a certain type of masculinity or if it is simply a matter of pride, but it is another aspect which causes me concern regarding maintaining equality. “Hardcore” players perceive themselves are better or being more authentic than those who are not “hardcore” players. Living the lifestyle 24/7 is sometimes looked upon as a privileged position on both sides, but is it “real” or is it an extended performance? My personal view is that participants who have adopted a 24/7 approach to their interests are not more legitimate or more authentic than those who play on the weekends or those who keep a box of toys under the bed and play occasionally. Being 24/7 also does not de-legitimate you or mean that you are in some sort of extended erotic illusion. It is all simply a matter of how you interpret yourself, the type of life you want for yourself and the identity that you carry.
The bottom line (or summary for those of you who looked at all that text and shook your head): There are a multitude of identities in the BDSM and fetish communities, there is no reason that there exist assumptions about identity or interests or that the community allow only the dominance/submission group be the presenting face.