In a quiet San Francisco neighbourhood, surrounded by views of tree-covered hills, a quaint little B&B welcomes visitors from across the country. Guests can choose from four well-appointed rooms in this refurbished turn-of-the-century house, all personally decorated by Elizabeth, the proprietor.
While they’re staying at Elizabeth’s B&B – called Differences – guests are also welcome to use all the amenities of the house: an extensive dungeon in the basement, metal hooks tucked into lacy corners and the genuine antique bondage devices adorning the rooms. Of course, guests will also need to make their own pancakes – B&B stands for bed and bondage here. Elizabeth doesn’t do breakfast.
Like other renegade subcultures, sadomasochism (S/M) is gradually becoming gentrified.
This is partly economic – getting flogged on a Friday night isn’t as cheap as it used to be. Dozens of exclusive sex stores have popped up, peddling high-end toys, devices and leatherware. A typical private “play party” runs each guest as much as $30 (this is a site cost – you pay for the space, not the sex).
Certain clubs even enforce a pricey dress code: if you aren’t all gussied up in latex or leather, you don’t get in the door.
This isn’t the kind of gentrification one sees in urban landscapes where yuppies suck up all the warehouse spaces and formerly low-income housing. Nor can one locate some previous version of the S/M community that was less wealthy. Indeed, tracing S/M’s origins back to its Founding Daddies – the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher- Masoch – one finds that S/M’s earliest class connections are purely aristocratic.
Over the past few decades, however, S/M practices have unmoored themselves from the fringe. As specialty leather and fetters shops like San Francisco’s Mr S demonstrate, S/M is making its way into the mainstream. With its tidy, gleaming racks of sweet-smelling leather goods, Mr S can only be described as boutique for sadomasochists – people who eroticise pain, power games and bondage.
“I wanted to go high-end with better quality goods,” says Richard Hunter, who owns the store along with his son.
“It’s not just the hardcore leather crowd anymore. A lot of them are very middleclass and live in the suburbs. They’ve read about it or seen us on HBO.” (The cable channel featured the shop on its cheerfully bawdy Real Sex series.)
This upwardly mobile trend in S/M can be prohibitive for people without a middle- class income – ironic, given that many of the community’s most outspoken advocates, such as well-known erotica author and therapist Pat Califia, have come from working class backgrounds.
But even if a fancy corset runs upwards of $200, there are still plenty of active S/M players whose income levels barely crack five digits. Why, then, do the most visible elements of the S/M community seem to associate edgy sex play with terms like “high quality,” “classy” or even that most puritanical of adjectives, “clean”?
To understand S/M in 2000, we have to look at the late 1960s, when the sexual revolution had baby boomers struggling to break from bourgeois sexual repression, hypocrisy and self-denial.
Of course 1960s countercultural rebellion wasn’t so different from the 1760s’ rebelliousness of aristocrat-sadists like De Sade, who also loathed bourgeois prudery, hypocrisy and rationalism. Enlightenment-era libertines and boomer counterculturalists alike tried to challenge their bourgeois counterparts with sexual hedonism and social experimentation that flew in the face of rigid, middle- class values.
S/M originated as a kind of social theory. Growing out of anti-bourgeois and anti- rationalist sentiment in the 18th and 19th centuries, and anti-establishment politics in the 1960s, S/M theory revolves around the struggle to define power and consent.
As S/M player “Ms J” (she chose not to be identified by her given name) puts it, “People who practice S/M learn to play with power, and become free in that play and expression.
“It is very threatening to the state for the populace to become so at ease – as they are less malleable and not easily subjugated anymore, in a certain sense.”