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Culture

'We're all dominant and submissive - don't deny yourself': What BDSM teaches us about power and consent

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A secluded BDSM chateau in upstate New York, La Domaine Esemar, is training masters and slaves to play with power dynamics and closely examine consent

Anna Freeman

06 Abril 2018 14:12

BDSM - the erotic play of bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism, and masochism - has crept above ground. The art and practice has moved from the fringes of society into mainstream consciousness. What was once thought to be a leather-clad, shady sexual subculture fixated on an unhealthy relationship between pain and pleasure is slowly gaining acceptance for its nuanced exploration of power dynamics. However, if you’re going to delve into this world, you need professional guidance.

That’s where La Domaine Esemar comes in. Nestled among the secluded foothills of the Berkshire mountains in upstate New York lies the last surviving BDSM training chateau. Co-founded by Master R, a talented pioneer in the practice whose experience spans over five decades, and headed up by Mistress Couple, a revered figure in New York’s kink scene and a psychology graduate, Esemar is a connection to the old world of BDSM practices. Surrounded by woodlands, it’s ‘a kinky home from home,’ Mistress Couple says.

We spoke to Mistress Couple and a married couple - Lady M and Master L - who have trained at Esemar to gain some more insight into the key tenants and disciplines of the BDSM arts.

Slaves and masters roam the halls of La Domaine Esemar

Healthy play

One of the most common preoccupations with BDSM from the 'vanilla' world is that it is dangerous and painful. ‘But won’t it hurt?’ is probably most people’s first question. Well, yes, often, but there is a difference between healthy play and unhealthy play. Given that exchanges can include use of needles, ropes, fire and electrical stimulation, a training chateau like Esemar is fundamental to safely pushing erotic and physical boundaries.

Lady M, who by day works in communications in Manhattan, but by night is a leading ‘dom’ figure in the kink and fetish scene, explains that her introduction to BDSM turned her off the community for a decade. A man she was dating at university groomed her into the practice and consistently abused his power. ‘There is a harmful way to enter BDSM, and there is a healthy way,’ she tells me, ‘I had a very unhealthy introduction, but because of that I can now see both sides of kink and power play. I was victimised, but I don’t see myself as a victim.’ When Lady M met another partner ten years later, she found her voice in the BDSM paradigm.

There is a stark difference between healthy play and unhealthy play

Power exchange: beyond gender binaries

Power dynamics are everywhere. In the family, in the workplace, in relationships and friendships; they shape everything we do. For women, in particular, navigating the hegemonic structures that value male dominance above all else is a form of bondage in itself. As Lady M points out, women are socialised to keep quiet and chaste. Women are always too much or too little; never quite right. Therefore, in many ways BDSM is a way of making the invisible power exchange dynamic, not just between the sexes, but between other processes of identification, visible. A way of working out the kinks in our approaches to power, so to speak.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for non-BDSM communities to wrap their heads around is submission and slaves. On the surface level, the notion of being submissive is something we view with disdain as a society. And for women, this issue is particularly pertinent. Mistress Couple says, however, the power dynamic within BDSM is a fantasy and is motivated by complex psychological dynamics. In the balancing act between domination and submission - sadism and masochism - there is a spectrum of power that is constantly shifting. Power cannot function without weakness, therefore the relationship is mutually dependent.

Master L, husband of Lady M and someone who ‘took to BDSM like a fish out of water’, is currently exploring his submission with Mistress Couple at Esemar, even though he has predominantly swayed towards dominance. Himself and Lady M identify as more dominant in a ‘switch’ dynamic, meaning that both play around with their submission as well. ‘We all have within ourselves dominant and submissive impulses and it is a disservice to yourself to deny yourself that,’ Master L says, ‘There is value to exploring both sides of the leash. If you are a master, you are more likely to be a good slave, and vice versa. It’s not about female and male - it’s more complex than that.’

Claire Hex

Consent and boundaries

The vanilla world has a lot to learn from BDSM communities about consent. It is a wider conversation we are having in society at large now following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, but having a dialogue about specific boundaries and where to draw the line has always been a staple of BDSM practice. Mistress Couples makes a valid point that professionally training people about consent has a lot of merit. She says that at Esemar they stay on the side of legality - nothing constitutes prostitution and they don’t take requests to kill people (well done, I guess?) - but there is a lot within that realm they can work and play with to teach about what constitutes consent, and what does not.

For example, using safe words, setting soft and hard limits, and keeping a constant and evolving dialogue between play partners must (or should) be the foundation for any BDSM practice. Master L and Lady M ‘own’ a slave together, which may come as problematic for some, but the structure works on a basis of trust and honesty, they say. The couple trust that their slave will use his safe word, and he trusts the they will not push him beyond his limits. And negotiation has to happen with every step. Although Master L and Lady M may not be the most conventional married couple, they too must set boundaries with each other, and who they choose to play with outside their marriage.

Soft and hard limits denote the difference between what acts a person wants to or is willing to play with, and those that should not be incorporated at all. For Master L, race play is his hard limit. Being a person of colour from Costa Rica, playing with race in a submissive role with a white person would be too triggering. He might, however, consider exploring it with another person of colour.

Mistress Couple with submissives or slaves

The healing power of pain and arousal

It’s not just about sex. Although eroticism and sexual play is a key component, members of the BDSM community often speak of the transformative power of examining their connection with power and pain. Abuse and punishment is just one part of BDSM arts, Mistress Couple explains, and most people come to Esemar to heal from past traumas and struggles, and to strengthen their relationships with others. Going through the motions of reliving past events or discovering new avenues of pain and pleasure can, according to Mistress Couple, have very beneficial psychological effects.

Master R, who founded Esemar, hypotheses that the concept of one true master helps those vulnerable to abuse in the outside world. It is the idea that if you truly submit to one person, if you put all your loyalty in them in a consensual power dynamic, no one else can hurt or take advantage of you. Only your one true master can exert dominance over you, but in a context that you have control over. This, according to Mater R, allows for greater strength in everyday situations.

BDSM community members explore more than just their sexual fantasies

Diluting the art: how BDSM went mainstream

Although still taboo in many corners of society, the BDSM arts have steadily crept into a wider discourse on sex. In fact, last year sociologists reclassified BDSM from sexual subculture to ‘leisure activity’ akin to playing golf. And of course, the Fifty Shades phenomenon, although extremely misleading, has played a major role in the normalisation of kink and sexual fetishes. Mistress Couple says that five years ago the scene was heavily male-dominated, but there has been a shift in view for women. There isn’t one gender that is more represented at Esemar now. ‘As the discussion on gender becomes more complex, and females become more lucrative and have less shame about spending money on exploring sexuality and expressing gender, the gender divide has evened out,’ she tells me. Far more people are willing to at least give it a try.

Like with anything that becomes popular though, there are important things that are lost as well. Master L explains that when BDSM was pathologised it was driven underground and it maintained its authenticity. Now it has gone mainstream, there is a dilution of the arts and practices of BDSM. Everyone can Google how to perform certain acts, but the psychological journey of the individual requires more than a computer search engine. Equally, institutions like Esemar are hard to come by now because a boom in popularity naturally puts individual institutions out of business. If anyone out there with an interest in BDSM can claim to be an expert, it is increasingly hard to compete with.

Maybe BDSM is not for everyone - or even most - but it’s hard not to admire the honesty at its core.

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