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Literary Journalism's Effect on Destigmatizing BDSM Stereotypes | Medium | 2021


The article discussing Literary Journalism's Effect on Destigmatizing BDSM Stereotypes, contains adult themes, the topic of BDSM. Please be aware there are trigger warnings for mental illness, abuse, and sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.


Kinky. Exciting. Sensual. Perverted. Secretive. Mentally Ill. Each of these words describes BDSM (bondage-discipline, dominance-submission, and sadism-masochism) and its stereotypes. The community and its members have been stigmatized because of their sexual and atypical nature. In the past decade, BDSM has become more mainstream with accurate and inaccurate media representations. Because of its emergence into the public eye, journalists have taken to exploring and, as a result, demystifying the topic.


Compared to traditional journalism, literary journalism is better able to destigmatize BDSM. Its subjective style and personable approach can expand the audience's knowledge and empathy toward the subject. Academic journalism articles on the BDSM community provide an open discussion, thus lessening its stigma and stereotypes.


Literary Journalism began as a shift from the normality of typical journalism to follow a style more akin to that of novelists or biographers (Wolfe, 1973; Hartsock, 2002). Tom Wolfe describes it as "like a novel" because it's precisely that, but not exactly a novel (Wolfe, 1973, p. 9). Literary journalism combines a book's stylistic writing and a newspaper article's reporting. The stylistic report allows a literary flair to otherwise bland, straight-to-the-point "hard-knack" journalism.


Hartsock explains that one of the results of this new form of journalism was usually a kind of social allegory "with potential meanings beyond the literal in the broadest sense an allegory's meaning. Largely although not exclusively, that allegory is about embracing an understanding of the social or cultural other" (Hartsock, 2002, p. 22). This other is someone or a group that is separate from the audience. This shows social distance, described as how intimately one interreacts with and understands a social group (Akerlof, 1997). It's easier to view a minority with over-generalizations. If there is a significant social and contextual distance, that results in those terms being "more abstract, schematic, and decontextualized terms" (Yang, 2015). This distance creates difficulties in altering inaccurate stereotypes of BDSM as those with a significant social space tend to "ignore individual differences and, as a result, make it difficult, if not impossible, to illustrate the existence of subgroups that behave differently from the majority of the population" (Akerlof, 1997).


Literary journalism provides a sympathetic connection between the subject and the reader that works to lessen this social distance. Media can give various representations that reinforce and maintain stereotypes or a counter-stereotype that challenges and alters existing views (Yang, 2015). Having the BDSM group as part of a vastly distant "other" merely reinforces the stereotypes and limits sympathy for them as the other, thus further reducing individuals' motivation to seek out accurate information on them (Yang 2015). This lack of contact between the viewer and the stereotyped minority limits the chance for people to change their stereotypical views and gain an accurate representation of the minority. By portraying minorities in a counter-stereotype framework, the authors provide a new context. Regarding literary journalism, the 'other' is given additional context with each article that shifts how they're viewed.


The BDSM community allows people to explore sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual inclination in a comfortable and safe environment (Brown, 2010). A specific description of the community is complex because each fetish is diverse and individual. "If one is fascinated with dressing like a panda bear and rolling around in public to be petted, that person can find a place in the BDSM community" (Brown, 2010, p. 7). This group is not a tiny minority. One study shows that as far back as 1953, people were interested in BDSM (Kinsey 1998). men (50%) and women (55%) reported responding erotically to being bitten, as well as men (22%) and women (12%) said an erotic response to a sadomasochist story (Kinsey, 1998). In the 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey, 33% of Canadian adults have had sex using masks, blindfolds, or other forms of bondage (p. 15). Human sexuality expert Dr. Lehmiller published a study over two years that found 47% of women and nearly 60% of men interviewed fantasized about being sexually dominating (2018).


Despite the numbers, there is stereotyping, stigmatization and discrimination (Richters et al., 2008; Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013). Stereotypes cause the entire community to be seen as dangerous, sick, and immoral. One of the most prevalent stereotypes is that BDSM is harmful, abusive, sexual, or otherwise. In reality, the one overarching rule in the community is "safe, sane and consensual" (Zambelli, 2013). Typical and proper BDSM relationships are thoroughly negotiated. Safety, sanity, and consent are constantly present.


As Sarah Beall, the Madam Curator at Make Love Not Porn, explains in an interview, "In order to have a truly safe, consensual, and sexually satisfying kinky sex life, they have to learn to communicate more than the average bear" (Rinzler, 2015, para. 6). As in every community, however, some outliers don't adhere to the rules and cross the fine line into abuse. As a result, they give a bad name to the rest of the community. In an interview with BBC's Soraya Auer, a sex blogger, podcaster and author, Girl on the Net explains that "BDSM is to abuse what boxing is to being punched by surprise. The former is done with consent and an understanding of risks. The latter isn't and is assault" (2018).


Another prominent stereotype is the assumption that they have something psychologically wrong with them, anxiety, PTSD, depression, or a history of abuse. This stereotype has been perpetuated by the psychoanalysis and psychopathologizing of psychologists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud (Brown, 2010). Krafft-Ebing discussed the types of "perversions" to diagnose "sexual degenerates" in his novel Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Freud continued the psychoanalysis of "sexual deviants" and renamed all sexual deviation under sadomasochism (1906). They had a tremendous effect on BDSM and the stereotypes of deviancy and perversion.


Later those psychoanalysts affected how the medical world sees BDSM. The DSM5 considered sadism and masochism, along with other BDSM kinks, as a disorder under the definition of paraphilia (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Thus, it furthers the mentally ill or unfit stereotype. This diagnosis has been misused to persecute and prosecute sexual minorities and BDSM subcultures (Brown, 2010, Moser & Shindel, 2010; Reiersøl, And Skeid, 2006). As of 2015, adults consenting to atypical sexual behaviour are no longer considered mentally ill under paraphilia (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This has changed because of the massive effort of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), a sexual advocacy group. However, there isn't any defence or legal protection for those who engage in BDSM from being outed and having that used against them in court or blackmail (Mincer, 2018).


Being in the BDSM community comes with risks within the courtroom in cases of consent, assault, child custody, domestic violence, property rental, job termination, and employment discrimination (Brown, 2010; Moser & Shindel, 2010; Reiersøl & Skeid, 2006).


Those psychological illness stereotypes are not accurate. A study from the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that the results were more favourable for BDSM practitioners compared to the control group in terms of neuroses, rejection sensitivity, extraversion, open-mindedness, conscientiousness, and subjective well-being, yet were less favourable in terms of being less agreeable (Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013). Studies tend to agree that BDSM is simply a sexual preference or interest, a subculture for sexual exploration and not an unhealthy practice resulting from a mental illness or abuse or difficulties with 'normal sex' (Richters et al., 2008; Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013; National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, 1999).


Regardless, these stereotypes persist. Although these are difficult to overcome, there has been increasing awareness of BDSM within media such as advertisements, billboards, film, television, and news. It's been diversified and prominent throughout media and is "no longer confined to Haute fashion or the occasional reference; SM has saturated popular culture" (Weiss 2006 p. 108). The film 50 Shades of Grey is one recent and well-known example. Although it wasn't the first, BDSM appeared in films as early as the early 20th century. Regardless, 50 Shades of Grey helped bring BDSM to mainstream media arguably more than others that came before because it went viral. These media representations of BDSM are no longer just sexualized, shocking, exotic, and thrilling depictions but showcase the kink community in more of a mundane context. Within television programs, "viewers are offered not only sexy and scandalized depictions on late-night cable television shows, docudramas, or prime time crime dramas, but also friendly and upbeat depictions on prime-time situation comedies, soap operas, and home and garden shows" (Weiss, 2006 p. 109).


Within the community, it's debated whether these film and television representations are more beneficial or harmful. There hasn't been a clear shift in terms of stereotyping. Instead, it is simultaneously a mixture of "mocking and sincere, normalizing and pathologizing" (Weiss 2006, p. 121). On the one hand, these portrayals of BDSM bring them into the public conversation allowing it to be more normalized. As BDSM is represented more and within more contexts than before, "it has also come to signify something more mainstream and more conventional, something less exceptional, extreme, or unusual" (Weiss 2006, p. 111). Simply, it makes the topic more mundane and thus comfortable to discuss.


On the other hand, it's not as beneficial as it could be. More representations of BDSM in media are not necessarily progressing, as there's no straightforward way to determine the correlation between increased visibility and acceptance. Many media examples are inaccurate portrayals of healthy BDSM relationships, further reinforcing the existing stereotypes. The community is often inaccurately portrayed as it only receives attention in limited quantity, where it's often shown negatively and commonly limited to crime drama (Brown, 2010). For example, 50 Shades of Grey received backlash from the BDSM community for its inaccuracy more than any other film (arguably because of its popularity and not its comparable inaccuracy).


In an article by Anna Smith, Jon Blue, a BDSM practitioner, was quoted as saying, "Christian is manipulative, controlling, and has all the characteristics of a psychopath. In the end, he proved his point by beating her up, then being charming again" (2015). E. L. James' novel may be significant as erotica, but it's an inaccurate and unhealthy BDSM relationship. Although it gives an incorrect and poor description of consent and a negative exploration of feminism, it offers discussion openings (Moen, 2015). BDSM in the mainstream media allows people to look at it without being considered taboo. Those stereotypes can be rewritten with an open discussion to show accurate representations.


Literary journalism is at the personal level, one that immerses the audience in highlighting the "importance of honouring and valuing sexual subcultures, seeking research funding and community support systems, and fighting for the political necessity of diverse forms of sexual expression" (Fahs, 2009 p. 422). The subjectivity of literary journalism takes the heart of the story and makes it relatable instead of an article that states what's happening. Katie Van Syckle's "A Crash Course in Kink" introduces the kink community in a first-person personal feature (2018). She puts her writing in the framework of exploration and curiosity instead of accusing or pathologizing.


The BDSM community's most prevalent stereotype is that of danger and abuse. Articles outlining the "safe, sane, and consensual" motto counteract that stereotype. Valeriya Safronova and Syckle authored another piece for the New York Times called "The Boundary Between Abuse and BDSM." This article outlines the fine line between BDSM and abuse while contrasting BDSM practices to sexual assault allegations (2018). Soraya Auer, a BBC journalist, continues this sentiment and discusses consent with sex experts and prominent community members, such as sex coaches, bloggers, researchers, and business owners (2018).


This is an important topic as there have been several sexual assault allegations against people, such as Eric Schneiderman and Jian Ghomeshi, who try to excuse their behaviour as a part of a BDSM relationship (Mayer & Farrow, 2018; Stryker, 2014). Whether these allegations are true, these examples negatively impact BDSM as it reinforces the stereotype of BDSM being a cover for abuse. As well it highlights the difference between BDSM and abuse. Several articles, like Safronova, Syckle, and Auer, write that the fine line is obvious continuing consent.


Literary and journalistic articles allow a better sense of understanding of the world of BDSM. Tina Horn has authored several articles highlighting the community, such as "Why Are People into That?!" a current column podcast written for the establishment, covering a range of specific kinks (2016). A seemingly endless list of kinks and fetishes adapted to the individual(s) engaging in them exists.


James Nichols, a writer for Huffington Post, explores one such kink; puppy play (2016). This form of kink is often a subcategory of a power dynamic where one roleplays the pet or puppy mentality while the other takes on the role of owner. From there, the rest is up to the people within the relationship, leading to a lot of subjectivity and variety.


Puppy play is one example of a subculture within the BDSM community based around pet play and was formed from the leather scene (Nichols, 2016). The leather scene is another subculture and kink that focuses on leather. Matt Baume, a Rolling Stone writer, discusses the leather scene "thought to have grown out of the post-World War II biker scene, which tended to be dominated by uniforms, buzz cuts, and military honour codes. It was an aesthetic that resonated with gay men who couldn't identify with the more effete stereotypes of the time" (2017). Horn, Nichols, and Baume are just a few examples.


Articles focusing on specific interests show that the community's preferences are as diverse as the individuals'.


Literary journalism articles destigmatize even more by writing features that focus on specific individuals. In part, the readership gets to know the people personally, thus limiting the social distance and the stereotyped view of them. Amanda Duberman writes about Mistress Velvet, a professional dominatrix who requires clients to read black feminist theory to emphasize the power dynamic between men and women, specifically, submissive white men and dominant black women (2018).


Tina Horn has interviewed and featured many members of the BDSM community, including actor James Franco and Christina Voros, the producer and director of Kink, a documentary about the fetish pornography website Kink.com (2014). Jamie Feldman visually outlines the lives of BDSM practitioners by comparing them in and out of their kink attire (2018). These photos weren't merely about the depth of human sexuality but of self-expression.


The photographer, Michael Topolovac, explained, "There was a common thread of, 'Hey, this is us. We're complicated. We're diverse. We're expressive'" (Feldman, 2018). A counter-stereotype improves the stigmatization and negates the stereotype by providing a larger context (Yang, 2015). These articles highlight people within BDSM and show they're social advocates, directors, documentarians, actors, producers, writers, and photographers.


Stereotypes of the BDSM community are incorrect, resistant, and commonly shared within the majority. Destigmatization is essential regardless of the group as it demystifies aspects of the human condition and allows people within BDSM to be accessible without fear of stigmatization or discrimination. The connection between BDSM subjects and the audience limits the social distance and lessens inaccurate stereotypes. With the increasing representation of real BDSM relationships, the views will change from false stereotypes.


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