For readers who may look at BDSM (“bondage and discipline, Domination and submission, sadism and masochism, or sadomasochism and [possibly] slave and Master”) (14) with squeamish eyes, Alison Robertson offers a detailed introduction to major elements of BDSM in Play, Pain and Religion: Creating Gestalt through Kink Encounter. Readers more familiar with the BDSM Scene will find Robertson’s religious studies approach intriguing, in particular, her use of the concept of “religioning” as an analytic tool. Distinct from a set of religious beliefs or practices, religioning refers to the dynamic processes through which individuals engage in “world-, meaning-, and/or story-making” (3), creating an “emergent” sense of “something else” or gestalt (5).
Drawing from interviews with forty-four participants, Robertson intends to illustrate how approaching BDSM as a process of religioning expands our understanding of the significance individuals attach to their practice and how this significance develops from experience itself, even if it escapes easy description and categorization. The study then focuses on how individuals describe the significance emerging out of their practice. Primarily, it seems that Robertson’s participants describe this emerging significance as a product of enactment, such as the enactment of identities, interpersonal relationships, transgression of social norms, or the confrontation of personal boundaries, fears, and existential concerns.
BDSM play is key to understanding religioning as a process of emerging significance. Robertson uses play to designate intentionally delineated moments of BDSM practice—as opposed to something more continuous, like life-style relationships—through which “the world is changed, and a new space created, within which powerful experiences can occur” (59). These powerful experiences are diverse for Robertson’s participants. For some, their play might include practices such as flogging or bondage, transforming what might otherwise be an experience of external stimuli into an experience of intimacy and trust between a Dominant and a submissive. For others, practices like knife-play may be a way to achieve physical marks that attest to an overcoming of pain or a transformed understanding of embodiment. In this sense, play can become an “active engagement with pain” that transforms pain and one’s relationship to pain (124).
While Robertson’s study offers a beneficial overview of BDSM practice, those with a specific interest in the religious aspect of the study may find it somewhat lacking. Very few of Robertson’s participants specify their practice as religious, and discussion of this aspect of BDSM is limited (although it should be noted this kind of practice is not Robertson’s intended focus). The chapter on BDSM and ritual is informative, in this regard, as it examines the accounts of three participants who use BDSM and kink in the performance of their religious practice.
The work also offers a rather limited description of the concept of religioning, emphasizing instead the description of the significance participants give of their practices. The difficulty of explaining how religioning occurs seems to be a difficulty of Robertson’s subjective-experiential methodology. Since the description and significance of BDSM practice will vary among individuals, it is unsurprising that describing how this significance emerges also varies. Robertson does emphasize that religioning, according to experiential accounts, seems to function according to processes of configuration or contextualization forming a “perspective of the whole” (129) and from which significance can occur. But, these processes are primarily retrospective and descriptive in Robertson’s study, rather than ascriptive.
For example, Robertson’s offers a personal account of being caned. This account is not intended to give a description of caning as an activity involving flesh, nerves, and a stick, but to illustrate caning as a process of religioning through which an individual can engage with the experience as a whole (117). In this example, religioning refers to Robertson’s “subject-shattering experience” created by BDSM play (118). This account is meant to illustrate one such way the practice of BDSM can be understood as religioning, as the practice is contextualized into something other than the activity itself, i.e., a subject-shattering experience, which flows out of the experience itself and from an individual’s description of the experience.
In her discussion of ritual, however, this idea of contextualization and religioning in the form of play is linked to naming or the intentionality of particular practices, i.e., practices that, for some, may be the context out of which powerful experiences or gestalt emerges, are, for others, intentionally named as religious. This distinction, between BDSM as such and BDSM as ritual, indicates that this process of contextualization is not necessarily only retrospective and descriptive, nor is significance necessarily emergent. Putting the pejorative language of ascription aside, we might say that Robertson overlooks the significance individuals attached to BDSM practice through the contextualization of anticipation or belief. In this sense, it is worth questioning Robertson’s contention that religioning is a process linked primarily to experience and description of experiences, or whether there might exist a more complex relationship between our experiences and what can be said to be before, after, or outside such experiences.
Despite the slight ambiguity of the concept religioning, the advantage of Robertson’s study is that it broadens the approach to the study of BDSM by emphasizing the need to encounter BDSM on its own terms and beyond its associations in popular imagination, namely, that its primary function is sexual gratification. Greater attention to style and structural clarity would have benefited the work, but, as a whole, it is both engaging and accessible, and it will especially interest non-specialists given its breadth of subject matter.
Annemarie Konzelman is a doctoral candidate in divinity at the University of St Andrews.
Annemarie G. Konzelman
Date Of Review:
October 28, 2022
Alison Robertson is a research associate with at the Open University. She is interested in the places where the lines commonly drawn between categories (such as ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’) become blurred or ambiguous and in how such blurring affects the ways people look at the world. Her research interests, other than kink, include lived and personal religion, edgework, and self-inflicted or positive experiences of pain.
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