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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013

'Venus in Fur' and 'Fifty Shades'

Representations of Kink in Popular Culture

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This month, I was given the opportunity to see a production of Venus in Fur at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and participate in a talkback after the performance with the actors and artistic director. The show runs until Nov. 3, and you should go see it because it’s very well done and thought provoking.

The play takes its title and inspiration from the book Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose surname gives us the term “masochism.” Von Sacher-Masoch explored female dominance in both his writing and his personal life. I’ll admit that I was initially put off by the advertising for the Rep’s Venus in Fur, which described it as a “sizzling battle of the sexes…that will keep you wondering to the very end just who, exactly, is on top.” I would like to never, ever, ever hear the phrase “battle of the sexes” ever again, please. I hate that it implies there are only two sexes, that men and women are naturally in opposition to one another and that sex is a “battle” that someone must “win.” My entire professional life has been dedicated to challenging these three concepts. In addition, in the context of Venus in Fur, we know that the play centers around the concept of female dominance, so framing it as a “battle” implies to me that female dominance is something that must be challenged and that, in the end, we will see the dominant woman getting her comeuppance. Ummm, yeah, no thanks.

Fortunately, the production is much more than its marketing suggests. It’s difficult to discuss it without spoiling it, so I will just say that for me, the most interesting concept explored in the play is the idea of feminine sexual archetypes and stereotypes and how women are forced to conform to them, even when they are in a supposedly dominant role.

The fact that this play is being produced so widely this year—actor Greta Wohlrabe stated that there are more than 20 productions around the country this season—probably owes a lot to the cultural watershed that is Fifty Shades of Grey. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the publication of the Fifty Shades trilogy made it much more acceptable to acknowledge, discuss and practice BDSM (a compound acronym that stands for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism). Venus in Fur played to an almost-full house on the Thursday night I attended, with a substantial number of audience members eagerly participating in both the pre- and post-production discussions.

The fact that representations of BDSM in popular culture are gaining so much attention is a double-edged sword. Yes, it means that BDSM is becoming more accepted, but do these representations also contribute to stereotypes that limit and constrain the way kink is practiced? Blogger, educator and author Clarisse Thorn just came out with a new book, BDSM and Culture: Fifty Shades of Stereotype, that addresses this question. I read her book during the same week that I saw Venus in Fur and had the chance to ask Clarisse a few questions that were informed by my experience of the play.

LAS: Why did you feel there was a need for BDSM and Culture: Fifty Shades of Stereotype?

CT: I’ve been educating about BDSM for about five years now, and I’ve been giving a “BDSM 101” lecture that whole time. There’s a large amount of knowledge that I have about the history and culture of BDSM, and I had this moment where I realized that a lot of this knowledge wasn’t captured in my writing. Most of my writing had addressed my personal experiences, but I knew so much about these old organizations and these historical figures. I had all of these opinions on them and these opinions had gotten into my lectures, but not my books.

Fifty Shades of Grey was a total game changer, but it was really easy to miss it—everyone assumed it was just going to pass, and why should they write about it or think about it? “Clearly, this is a flash in the pan.” But now, [Fifty Shades] is people’s main cultural reference point.

LAS: Why is the historical context of BDSM so important?

CT: My work has always been a little more psychological and contextual than others. I don’t want to teach how to throw a whip—other people do that much better than me. You have to know the technical stuff, but I always thought that the important conversations were learning how to communicate and the contexts that are shaping our experience of these activities. The amount of stigma surrounding [BDSM], even though it’s different post-Fifty Shades—there’s so much judgment and so many misconceptions that it’s surprising to me that people don’t talk about it more. When I was just starting out, the most useful class to me was one about etiquette, and another about emotional aspects [of BDSM] and how to distinguish abuse from consensual BDSM—but it was hard to find these classes. All the classes were about how to set someone on fire and stuff. BDSM by its nature is this deeply complex, highly emotional activity, and you [need] tools for coping with this.

LAS: In your book, you write that the prevalence of the professional dominatrix, or Pro Domme, in media and popular culture can actually be limiting or harmful for dominant women. Can you say more about that?

CT: I quote Bitchy Jones in the book, who used to write about this a lot. She was a dominant woman who was not stereotypically physically attractive. She had very specific things that she wanted from an encounter, but she never saw these things reflected in mainstream depictions of femdom.

Wanda von Sacher-Masoch published a book in the early 1900s where she talked about how much she disliked the experience [of being a dominant woman]. It’s kind of a crazy thing that Wanda was put in a position of “power,” but she really hated it and felt hemmed in by it. [Leopold von Sacher-Masoch] was using his male privilege to force her to do things that she really didn’t want to do.

When you look at the Pro Domme today, you have this incredibly narrow view of female sexuality. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t so pervasive. When people think “BDSM,” they think “Pro Domme.” “BDSM” is shorthand for “sexually adventurous,” so “sexually adventurous” means “Pro Domme.” Lots of women get into being Pro Dommes because they want to be sexually adventurous, and that’s the [only] path they see. There’s nothing wrong with [being a Pro Domme], but being aware of what the stereotypes are can be a tremendously powerful and freeing thing to keep in mind.

 

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I definitely felt the character of Vanda in Venus in Fur pushing back against this stereotype, and the idea that men are the ones who define what a “dominant woman” is and should be. Clarisse explores in her book how the BDSM community can, ironically, shut out people who do not conform to such stereotypes, even as it exists as a space that provides an alternative to “mainstream sexuality.” Clarisse recently posted a blog about her interviews with people who didn’t identify as part of the “BDSM community” for this reason. This is a complex issue that I encourage readers to explore if they are at all interested in kink and gender roles.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than fifteen years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXPress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.