Sex-positive documentary report: “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think” and related shorts

Clarisse Thorn's picture


I’m turning over a new leaf by failing to preface the post with a lot of text. This  Sex+++ documentary was pretty close to my heart ….


We showed Erin Palmquist’s “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” (check out the official website!) as well as two related shorts, “Leather” and “Cut & Paste”. I was heartbroken that technical difficulties prevented us from showing “Forever Bottom”, which I was really psyched about.  Oh well. The “Forever Bottom” DVD worked when we tested it on a laptop; we’ll try to get it to interface properly with the system and show it with a later film.

“BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” is an unfinished film, but it’s definitely on the right track. It tries to describe what BDSM is — i.e., demonstrate that it’s more than a dominatrix in a catsuit with a whip — and work against anti-BDSM stigma by interviewing a bunch of kinksters about what they do, how they do it, how they feel about what they do. I loved a lot of the points it made — they’re obviously very similar to points I constantly make with my outreach presentation and such.

“Leather” is an absolutely gorgeous short film that’s very similar to “BDSM”; it was made in 1995 and specifically features members of the gay leather subculture. It’s less cautious than “BDSM” in avoiding transgressive imagery, and it is more personal and less political than “BDSM”. It features scenes between one specific couple that seem as though they must be choreographed, they’re so lovely. But I don’t mean to imply that it’s hardcore or anything — there’s some bootlicking and hot wax and clothespins and flogging, that’s about it. The whole thing feels more ritualistic and meditative than darkly emotional; these aren’t degradation scenes or fear scenes. This is another film like “Sex Positive” where I wish I’d written down some of the quotations about what the participants were feeling, because they were so beautifully said.

“Cut & Paste” is a BDSM coming-out story, and it’s a well-made one with adorable graphics. I love coming-out stories so much! Better yet, it’s a coming-out story from the point of view of a Black queer woman who uses the opportunity — not just to show what it’s like to come into a highly stigmatized sexuality — but what she absorbed about what Black women’s sexuality is “supposed” to be.

The discussion group after the films talked a little bit about a number of BDSM-related issues, but didn’t go too in-depth about any of them. One interesting question, raised by a gentleman whose name I regrettably do not know, was this: As BDSM imagery becomes more prevalent in the media, does that make BDSM more mainstream? If BDSM is becoming more mainstream, then will that weaken ties within the BDSM community?

To the first question, I’d say that light BDSM is probably becoming more mainstream. More people are considering tying up their lovers with silk scarves today, than were 30 years ago. But I think that heavy BDSM play is still very, very stigmatized, and I also think that most people have no idea what forms heavy BDSM play can take. More importantly, I don’t think the mainstream has any real grasp on communication and consent tactics that are promoted in the BDSM community — beyond safewords, that is. 1-5 checklists? Check-ins? Simultaneous journals? These things are not being mainstreamed at all. (Although I’m doing my best to work on that with the sexual communication workshop I’ve been giving recently.)

As for weakening ties within the community … I don’t think that’s happening either, at least not yet. People are more open about BDSM now and that means that more people can come into the community — but a lot of people still don’t feel like they can talk about BDSM with vanilla people. So we have the benefits of people being able to find the community more easily, and we also have the strong bonds created when most of us feel like we can only talk to each other — no one in our outside lives — about the way we approach love/sex.

I doubt the community will collapse even if BDSM goes totally mainstream — if every BDSM act is totally acceptable, and information is freely available to everyone — because not everyone will ever be into BDSM. There will always be value to the community because it will always be the place to go to meet people who speak our erotic language. There may be some fragmentation as the scene gets bigger, of course — and to some extent this already happens, with different groups attending different clubs, for instance.

(Posted at Clarisse Thorn)

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