Academic journal article
By Yost, Megan R.
The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 47, No. 1
Prejudice and discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation have been well-documented over the past few decades (Badgett, 2003; Herek & Capitanio, 1996). More recently, discrimination against individuals based on nontraditional sexual practices and sexual identities beyond sexual orientation have begun to be documented (Wright, 2006). The purpose of this study was to explore the content of attitudes about individuals who engage in one category of nontraditional sexual practices, consensual sexual sadomasochism (SM).
In this article, SM refers to the safe and consensual sexual activities of an adult subculture that practices bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism as part of their sexual interactions (Scott, 1980; Weinberg, Williams, & Moser, 1984). SM practices, for the purposes of this article, are conceptually distinct from sexual violence (rape, sexual coercion) in that SM is consensual. Langdridge (2007) argued that a second distinguishing feature separating SM from nonconsensual violence (after consent) is that of meaning: "People within S/M scenes enter into such contracts for the pleasure (however broadly conceived) that they may experience. That is, the participants themselves mutually define the meanings of the acts that are perpetrated" (pp. 89-90). In other words, SM, as used herein, is distinct from violence because SM practitioners freely choose activities and imbue these activities with various meanings that involve personal pleasure.
Participants in SM use specific terminology to refer to the roles they adopt and activities in which they prefer to engage: A sadist, dominant, top, or master-mistress prefers to be the person ostensibly in control of the scene or providing stimulation; a masochist, submissive, bottom, or slave prefers to be the person ostensibly under their partner's control or receiving stimulation; and a switch, or versatile, is interested in both roles (for elaboration on roles and definitions, see Moser & Kleinplatz, 2007). Many SM activists claim that identifying as a sadomasochist (or as a dominant, submissive, switch, etc.) is similar to identifying as a lesbian, gay man, or bisexual in that SM is an identity that defines their sexuality and defines their preferred manner of interacting with a sexual partner (Kamel, 1983; Taylor & Ussher, 2001). However, others argue that SM is best conceptualized as a set of sexual practices or activities, with no implication for identity (Langdridge, 2006).
Estimates of involvement in SM are difficult to ascertain; according to a representative sample of Australian adults, 2% of men and 1.4% of women engaged in SM activity with a partner in the past year (Richters, Grulich, de Visser, Smith, & Rissel, 2003), but no such data are available for a U.S. population. Part of what makes prevalence estimates so difficult to obtain is the secrecy that many SM practitioners feel compelled to maintain. Due to perceptions of societal disapproval, an SM identity is frequently kept hidden from others; 72% of a group of SM-identified individuals surveyed by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF, 1998; an SM advocacy and activist organization) reported that they kept their SM identities a secret. This discretion is understandable, given the growing number of accounts of discrimination against SM practitioners documented by the NCSF, whose mission is to create "a political, legal, and social environment in the United States that advances equal rights of consenting adults who practice forms of alternative sexual expression" (NCSF, 2002). Their 1998 survey, which included 1,017 SM practitioners, found that 36% of respondents had experienced violence or harassment, and 30% experienced job discrimination.
Sources of SM Stigma: Religion, Feminism, Psychiatry, and the Media
If SM practitioners are generally discreet about their involvement, how could the general public develop attitudes, positive or negative, about this group? …