What follows are my poorly organized thoughts on Catherine Scott’s Thinking Kink. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I also took issue with a number of passages.
There are various points in the book where Scott’s analysis stops short & is replaced by frustration, at best, or subtle manipulation of the reader, at worst.
While discussing music videos in her introduction, for instance:
It saddens me that in a medium with such potential for originality, shaking female buttocks still seems to constitute the majority of what music video producers think viewers want to see. (6)
I don’t think the racist undertones of this passage are intentional. Elsewhere in her book, Scott is cognizant of racism in kink culture. But “shaking female buttocks” is quite obviously a reference to black women and twerking. The passage ostensibly points the finger at unimaginative producers (fair enough), but black women’s sexual and artistic agency ends up collateral damage — a phenomenon the author later critiques. The passage is jarring in context; it reads like unexamined white discomfort with black women’s self-expression.
Later (55-56), Scott celebrates Madonna as an empowered, authoritative figure whose music videos are sex-positive, kink-positive, and woman-centred. Meanwhile, Rihanna’s video for “S&M” is written off as a tasteless gimmick. The author discusses Madonna’s creative control, but only the creative control of Rihanna’s director, not Rihanna herself.
Yes, Madonna’s and Rihanna’s videos approach BDSM from different angles, and carry different messages as a result, but that contrast can only be discussed equitably if we start off with a level playing field. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should probably assume that both of these powerful, talented women have a say in the production of their music videos.
To be fair to Scott, she makes this point in a later chapter, but without calling on/out her earlier examples:
To assume Ciara was merely told what to do by white men in suits when she walked into a studio betrays a perception of black women far more racist or sexist than any scenes of white male top / black female sub race play (188-89)
There’s that hint of frustration again. That moment when the analysis stops in a huff. Yes, it’s racist to assume a black pop star has no creative control. And yes, it would be racist to assume a biracial couple’s private BDSM play is fundamentally messed up / oppressive / racist. But it’s also kinda sloppily, casually racist to say BDSM comes out ahead here. I take the author’s point, but BDSM has a race problem. So does the music industry. So does white, western culture, as a whole. I don’t know if there’s anything to be gained by carefully ranking the “slightly more racist” and “slightly less racist.” Seems more likely to be a potential distraction from the work of attending to racism, organizing against it, etc.
I was looking forward to the chapter on race & BDSM because it is a problem for the scene and because I hoped Scott would clarify some of the puzzling and potentially problematic statements I mentioned above. It did so, but not without at times succumbing to the defensive tone of so much of white people’s writing about racism (my own included, no doubt):
Why should we worry that someone is going to use this sculpture as an excuse for sexism or racism, unless we are already looking to do so ourselves? (192)
- Because we are all swimming in the same racist, sexist water.
- Because it’s not racist to notice racism.
- Because colour blindness has gotten us nowhere. (Which is an idea finally gaining traction, and which I hope is a fair answer to the question the author implies about the reason for increased cultural / discursive sensitivity now versus 25-30 years ago.)
On a related note, the author does go on to say that she thinks Grace Jones avoids some forms of criticism due to her physical power/presence. (*starstruck sigh*) But I think Jones’ unique station cannot be reduced to her physicality. Really, I think her physicality simply changes the focus of the criticism leveled against her.
Jones makes her artistic and creative agency crystal clear — jarringly clear. That approach is part of her aesthetic. Women performers with other (no less valid!) aesthetic approaches and quieter/softer personalities will not be given the same benefit of the doubt. It’s that much easier to make sexist assumptions about their lack of creativity or decisiveness, however false — and especially if they are non-white.
In her introduction to the chapter on racism & BDSM, Scott shares an anecdote from her work with Bitch magazine. She was asked by her editors to preface her blog post on race & BDSM with a note about her race & white privilege:
I found it odd the way Bitch only wanted me to apologize for this in one particular instance, and irritating that the commenter hadn’t bothered to see my post in the context of a holistic exploration of kink. (181)
A disclaimer/acknowledgement isn’t an apology. Conflating the two betrays immense unexamined privilege.
Yes, perhaps the editors should have asked the writer to be more upfront about her identity and social position throughout the series. Perhaps that would have benefited people with other marginalized / minority identities who participate in the scene, and led a few more folks in the majority to reflect on their station.
But what I wish Scott had come to terms with is the singularity of racism and dialogues about racism especially in countries marked by the transatlantic industrial slave trade. Especially in the US, due to the role of cotton plantations and slave labour in the country’s wealth and success. But likewise throughout the Americas, as well as in the UK (where the author is from).
There is no equivalent to racism and the history of racially justified slavery. Well-intended, deliberately anti-racist white folks come at the issue hand-wringing and bewildered much of the time, but that’s because white supremacy and racism are so powerful and so seductive that we can’t even see them clearly. The author’s irritation at her editors’ and readers’ attempt to cut through the fog show the extent to which she is mired in it as well.
I was heartened to see the extent to which the author championed black participants as the appropriate arbiters and brokers of their own fantasies (to hell with white discomfort), but the opening anecdote about the disclaimer shows her own lingering discomfort: understandable, in the face of such a huge, inhumane, brutal system such as racism. But something that must be confronted by white folks everywhere if we’re to be of any use at all to the cause of anti-racism.
Now, a few poorly articulated thoughts on sex positivity, the male gaze, etc.
“I’m a goddess to my slaves; I wouldn’t stoop to having sex with them.” (17)
This is a quote from a pro domme. Scott uses it to illustrate the [fairly common, kinda complicated] assumption that being physically intimate with a man is a kind of surrender — power relinquished.
But what I read in that comment isn’t a domme threatened by the possibility of losing power through touch or embrace. I read this as a window into the type of scenes she likes to run with her subs: a comment on her status, their [willing] humiliation, their worship of her.
A few paragraphs later, Scott acknowledges that the top/bottom dynamic is more of an exchange than it appears to be, but she extends this analysis only to aesthetics; she doesn’t really loop it back around to include physical distance.
And even extended to aesthetics, the analysis comes up short. Describing a domme:
Her clothes still seem intended for the pleasure of the male voyeur. (23)
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the male gaze is our assumption that for a woman, it is utterly inescapable — that all her aesthetic choices must pass through it / be subject to it — that she can’t possibly enjoy traditionally feminine styles or fetish ware — that by wearing anything that straight or bi men happen to enjoy seeing on women, a domme couldn’t possibly be exercising her autonomy or domination over her own physical self; she must be deliberately appealing to her male submissives through aesthetics.
Just by existing, lesbian femmes do a pretty efficient job of toppling this mess of assumptions about the infinite reach of the male gaze. Yes, we all live in the shadow of patriarchy and sexism; so, too, are we complex subjects.
Later in the book, I continued to have trouble with the author’s use of the male gaze. Scott continues to paint any aesthetics that happen to resemble the feminine ideals of the patriarchal status quo as of / for / serving the patriarchal status quo, This erases the sexual and aesthetic agency of the women making these apparel / style choices.
Later still, Scott states quite clearly that “femme-phobia is not a solution to the erasure of butch women” (153). True, but femme /= male gaze. That false equivalence is what’s frustrating me here.
Further, feminine /= femme. Lesbians should continue to be stewards of this term, since it originated in their communities. Analytical convenience is not an excuse for lesbian erasure.
Chapter 6 makes some really strong points regarding objectification and consent:
The dogma that all instances of objectification are wrong and misogynistic appears to demand that sexual desire always be cerebral, profound, and pure. In her essay “A Cock of One’s Own: Getting a Firm Grip on Feminist Sexual power,” Sarah Smith bemoans the idea “that there must be a way to have sex that is ‘feminist,'” feeling that it results in a “laundry list of must-nots that would hold our libidos hostage.” (113)
The language of choice will only take any of us so far, when we are aware that a level playing field (pun perhaps intended) is impossible to find in a society still a long way from dismantling the hierarchy that places the straight, white, cisgender male at the top. As “Paul,” a white male top said to Margot Weiss, “I think people in the scene are much too fast to… say ‘Well, you know as long as everybody consents… then it’s all OK….’ I think it’s just crazy for people to try and pretend that sexuality is this magical realm that is somehow natural and is unaffected by anything social, economic, or political.” The neoliberal belief that choice renders any scenario unproblematic often functions to reinforce a status quo which keeps the privileged in their position. (121)
The above quotes nicely reinforce the discussion of consent from Chapter 5:
Taking the line that the absence of a safe word = blanket consent seemed unnervingly close to the standard excuse for vanilla sexual coercion, i.e., the belief that the absence of a no = a yes. In her essay “Beyond Yes or No: Consent as Sexual Process,” Rachel Kramer Bussel writes, “It’s not enough to just assume that if she (or he) doesn’t say no, they want it…. The burden is not on the woman to say no, but on the person pursuing the sexual act to get an active yes.” Bussell was referring to the tiresome concept of “grey rape,” where sexual violence is excused via the apparent failure of the victim to make their resistance clear, but her rebuttal applies to BDSM too. (91)
Choice is a problematic word in this book. But how could it not be? There are plenty of folks out there who continue to believe that kink is coercion, full stop. And even in this book, even for the sake of defending both women and safe/consensual BDSM, choice is re-formed and re-framed according to the needs of the argument in question.
Yes, choice is complicated by racism, capitalism, sexism — not extinguished. The idea that choice is unassailable is criticized in the book a slippery neoliberal construct (indeed!), but the sacrosanct unassailableness of choice is also trotted out to excuse complicity, especially re: racism. On many occasions, the author suggests (ironically, without intending to do so) that the only racism that warrants critique is conscious, malicious racism — even though so much of it is unconscious and / or systemic. (Much like the origins of our individual kinks and fetishes. And the beat goes on….)
One last thing:
This one’s on the publisher, not the author. This is one of the most poorly proofed books I’ve read in a long time — so many typos and editing flubs.
On 25, the author calls Stalinism a type of fascism. No, it’s not. That’s impossible, actually.
Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom get mixed up on 193. (Good grief.)