Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Flexing the binary

I will be presenting a paper at the European Association of Social Anthropologists at the beginning of August on gender. I'm excited for several reasons - returning to Europe, meeting up with colleagues from Portugal, international exposure - but mostly because it is an opportunity to return to the gender conundrum that remains part of my dissertation work. Here's my abstract: 

Erotic Practices: Using BDSM Ritual to (re)Inscribe Gender
The traits of "dominance" and "submissiveness" are glossed as masculine and feminine, respectively, in the mainstream culture of the United States. Taking to heart Judith Butler's notion of gender as performance, practitioners of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline Dominance/Submission Sadomasochism) in the southern United States engage with gender identity as plastic and attempt to unmoor these attributes from physical bodies. Using erotic ritual practices that often draw implicitly from anthropological theories, such as Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas, group members have created a space to contest the lockstep association of dominance with masculinity and submissiveness with femininity.
Although the emic understanding is that these traits are entirely separate from one's gender, which in turn is separate from one's body, in practice the embodiment of these characteristics affects one's perceived gender over time in predictable ways in the larger heterosexual/pansexual group. The existence of a smaller group composed entirely of self-identified "women who play with women" serves as a foil against which to test the hypothesis that dominance and submission may be unlinked from the physical anatomy of a particular person but still strongly associated with a gendered identity.
By relying on erotic rituals to reinforce novel constellations of dominant/submissive-masculine/feminine, BDSM practitioners tap into anthropological theories developed in cross-cultural settings which have permeated mainstream American consciousness about the malleability of gender, the utility of ritual, and the role of sex in creating and maintaining social identities.
I am excited to start work on this paper. My ideas on being gendered/gendering/etc. have been percolating (more or less quietly) in the background as I've gone about my paid work. Now, I'm finally ready to return to them.

Gender was one of the things that first drew me to the kinky community. There were so many flavors and permutations and possibilities. Only after reflection did I perceive that everything was not as fluid or liberatory as I first felt. Still, it remains amazing to me that there is a space for people to stretch and flex what it means to masculine and feminine in the heart of Texas.

The systems I am trying to understand still rely on binary thinking - masculine/feminine or dominance/submissiveness. There is no third leg to the triad to really go beyond dualistic thinking. Sometimes I feel like studying gender in the United States is some sort of Levi-Straussian ouroboros - is binary opposition innate or a product of socialization?

Just when I feel everything will devolve into blue versus pink, I take heart in remembering the "switch." A switch is a person who can claim any particular gender combination at any given time. One of my favorite people described this as, "It's not an actual switch, not either/or but both/and." It's situational and relational and hella complicated but for me it's a possibility outside of 1 or 0.

Until Estonia, I'll be threshing out the finer points of what I mean by dominance and submission, feminine and masculine. You'll probably be reading about it here as I try out different schema. The switch will be my muse but probably not my subject, at least in this paper. I'm happy for feedback, especially from the kinky community, so if my ponderings on gender have squicked you or ring true, let me know.