Learned Doms and Natural Leaders: Models of Dominance as Articulated by Masculine-Identified Members of a BDSM CommunityIntroductionIn mainstream American culture, “hegemonic masculinity can be described as a pattern of activities that enable men to establish and maintain dominance over women within social institutions” (Steinfeldt, et al 2009:261; emphasis added). The nature of hegemony is to offer culturally plausible goals that maintain or enhance the status of those in power, in this case, men. The linkage between masculinity and dominance over women is a common one. Shifting gender roles, increases in the leisure class, changing sexual mores, and hot Texan nights conspired to create a natural laboratory of sorts for the exploration of gender. I worked in a BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, sado-masochism) community for twenty months, from 2009-2011. Due to length, I have chosen dominance as the thematic focus of this paper, leaving aside the question of dominance over whom for now. I argue that the association of dominance with masculinity is not as unquestioned as it once was, at least among middle-class, predominantly white, Southerners. The dominant-submissive axis is one of several identity spectrums in the BDSM community, but perhaps the most salient (barring gender) in the heterosexual portion of the community. By studying the ways that masculine identified individuals discuss the topic, a model of dominance can be induced that in some ways reinforces hegemonic masculinity and in others contests it.MethodsThe data for this analysis was drawn from a collection of interviews conducted in Texas with BDSM community members about their experiences with sexuality and within the BDSM community. I have included all the masculine-identified people I initially interviews (n=7), as it is theoretically interesting to see how dominance is discussed by those who purportedly aspire to it under popular American ideology. For reasons too difficult to explain succinctly, I did not interview any masculine-identified people who only identified as submissives, but in this sample I have a range of respondents on the dominance-submissive axis (see Table 1 below). According to Morse (1994), a sample of as few as six may be sufficient to explore the essence of an experience using grounded theory analysis. Although I have six cis-gendered men in my corpus, I have chosen to include Jo, an individual who identifies as transmasculine (not as male, not as a man), because they offer a foil to some of the cis-gendered men’s explanations of dominance. In other ways, Jo’s responses illustrate the expansion of masculine dominance.
Pseudonym Gender D/s Identity Age Xavier Male Dominant 34 Gregory Male Switch, submissive leaning 47 Terrence Male Dominant 31 Mike Male Dominant 50 Paul Male Dominant 47 Jason Male Non-D/s 31 Jo Transmasculine Switch 46Table 1 - IntervieweesIn popular speech in the BDSM community, the dominant-submissive spectrum is dichotomous; one is either dominant or submissive. Recognizing that this is not always the case, there is a special class of individuals called “switches,” who act as dominant or submissive, either between or within relationships. In practice, dominance (and its counterpart, submissiveness) varies in amount and quality, not hewing to the binary model suggested by categorization. Switches offer a counterpoint to “purely” dominants individuals in the sample.One final note about the sample, you may notice that Jason identifies as “non-D/s.” Among the community members, it was rare to find someone who did not identify on the dominant-submissive spectrum. Jason identifies as a switch, but only on the “top-bottom” spectrum, which is roughly “person acting-person being acted upon.” It refers to a person’s preference for activity, not as an aspect of identity. In many ways, the two axes are conflated and tops are assumed to be dominants (and bottoms submissives) unless it is actively asserted otherwise. Despite opting out of the D/s identity, Jason is still able to discuss dominance in a way that sheds light on the phenomenon as an active member in the community.As alluded to earlier, I have used many techniques pulled from Grounded Theory, albeit with a more structure approach than that originally advocated by Glaser and Strauss (1967). Bradley et al, promote a “qualitative data analysis design that applies the principles of inductive reasoning while also employing predetermined code types to guide data analysis and interpretation” (2007:1758). Additionally, Weston et al “used a priori theory to frame our questions, drive our interview protocol, and structure the initial levels of the coding scheme. We moved into a more grounded approach as we discovered codes working through the transcripts” (2001:382). Taking a page from their playbooks, I approached my coding with a priori themes about dominant identity, behaviors, characteristics, and value judgments. After a first pass using those codes, a set of themes emerged from the data.Using line-by-line coding and the constant comparison method (see Markovic 2006 and Bernard and Ryan 2010 for comparison), I was able to discern tension between the idea of as dominance as something innate and the belief that dominance can be learned. Codes further coalesced as I used the pile sort method to determine core and periphery quotations. Using MAXQDA, I was able to generate a proximity matrix of salient codes, which pointed to the strong relationship between “learned dom” and “characteristics of good dom”.Lacking the ability to visualize my data or to use statistical analysis for methods like word frequency, I rely instead on that old anthropological workhorse– thick description (Geertz 1973). Thick description is appropriate for the inductive nature of this research, where the aim is to explore emic categories and create a model that accounts for the apparent tension between the “natural” and the “learned” types of dominance.
ResultsEven limiting myself to masculine-identified individuals discussing dominance, several interesting patterns emerged. The one I found most intriguing was this idea that dominance is a fixed characteristic, innate, mysterious, and natural, which stood in contrast to the valuation people placed on learning how to be a better dominant as a positive characteristic for dominants.All of the individuals expressed what qualities a “good dom” should have. These qualities are split between how doms behave in the community and how doms behave toward their subs. In order to be respected in the community, a dom must be knowledgeable about techniques and willing to learn from other dominants. Credentials are held in high regard, especially those granted by established BDSM training programs and mentorship. Part of being knowledgeable means being in control and not doing unintentional harm.A dom must be responsible for the results of their actions. This is the intersection between the community-facing aspects of being a dom and the relationship-facing aspects. A good dom will learn their sub’s cues (being able to read body language, gauge pain processing, know what triggers exist), help the sub achieve their goals (either set collaboratively or set by the dom), express clear expectations, and offer appropriate aftercare. Although beyond the scope of this text analysis, from participant observation I know that subs compare notes often and a dom who really violates these rules will quickly gain a reputation.Xavier, a thirty-four year old male dominant, explained, “to me, the dom is the one that is in control, and to be in control you need to know what’s going on. You need the knowledge and if you don’t have the knowledge, how can you have control? So, knowing what the person [sub] likes, wants, desires, whatever and being able to just do that is part of what makes a dom to me, being able to just take them and go.” The themes of control, knowledge, and responsiveness to the partner are highlighted. It is central to his construction of being dominant.Conversely, respondents were much less verbose about what makes a bad dom, with a preponderance of replies coming from the switches. It is reasonable to posit that this stems from the fact that they have literally been on the opposite side of the equation. “Pure” doms seldom compete directly with one another, instead relying on proxy estimations, like the number of play partners or reputation in the community. Switches, on the other hand, have direct experience with dominants and are able to articulate it in ways that do not occur to pure doms. Bad doms are predatory, selfish, arrogant, not knowledgeable, and presumptive of others’ statuses.Top space, an altered state achieved by dominants during a scene, is seen as the purest expression of dominance. It stands in contrast to all the characteristics needed to be seen as a good dom. It is described as intense, powerful, primal, animalistic, and deep. There is tension between “dominant” as a role in the community and “dominance” as experienced in an altered state. For Jo, the mark of a bad dom is the objectification of the sub. They say, “It’s not like I say you’re an object, you’re a thing, I’m done, I have nothing to do with you. If somebody’s gonna cry I’m gonna hold them.” This directly contradicts Terrence’s experience of top space, when he states, “I found myself flogging to the beat of the music and I was aware that she was there, that she was a person, that she was human, but I sorta just didn’t care. The world collapsed down into the five feet in front of me – me, my arm, my flogger, and her ass.” Despite a language built around the construct that dominants are active and submissives are passive, Terrence is the only person who evinces nonchalance with this type of objectification. If this paper was longer, this would be the time to return to the gendered aspects of dominance.Top space is the one of the few acceptable venues for the expression of dominance in terms of hegemonic masculinity – a primal Joh of energy stemming from having power over another individual. By severely restricting the time and place of such shows of dominance, the BDSM community has created a space for a different type of masculine dominance, which is responsive to the needs of others, relies on the opinions of the group, and values learning (and by proxy, humility). These characteristics are derived from the narratives of masculine-identified people themselves. These are the traits they seem themselves expressing or want to strive toward.DiscussionText analysis is a powerful tool to explore new theoretical avenues, especially in a setting that already has so many judgments placed on it, from within and without. Typical gender analysis might overlook the distinction between dominance as a role in community, dominance as a role within a relationship, and dominance as an experience (top space). My next steps for this research include expanding the analysis to account for what feminine-identified individuals say about dominance and how that compares to the masculine-identified individuals. Within the scope of this project, all the respondents identified as primarily masculine or feminine, whether that be cis or trans*, but further work in this area should seek out gender fluid individuals. Concurrently, I will be performing the same analysis on what people say about submissiveness and switching. I have high hopes for further line by line coding and the possibilities for MDS.
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