Hi Everyone. DJ Williams, a somewhat infrequent commenter on MSP, recently published a book that, while not primarily about Mormonism, addresses it as it relates to BDSM. I recently read and reviewed the book and DJ has agreed to respond to comments on MSP. Here’s the review:
Even though the book doesn’t actually do this succinctly at any one point, let me give a background on the author and the setting for the book. This is both important and relevant, as the book is an auto-ethnography. DJ Williams is from Southern Utah (he never specifies from where, exactly). He was raised LDS, served an LDS mission, and quickly after his mission, married and had a child. When his child, Brittany, was two, he left Mormonism (I discuss this in greater detail below). Leaving caused him a substantial amount of emotional turmoil and depression, which nearly resulted in suicide. With the help of a therapist, he worked through his depression.
It’s not clear exactly when he started his college education amidst the marriage, depression, and therapy, but somewhere along the line he started college, pursuing interests in a variety of topics, including: physical health, crime, deviance, and leisure. His interests led to graduate degrees, including a PhD in Physical Education and Recreation from The University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada.
While working as a postdoc researching deviant leisure (which is never clearly defined but seems to be used both to mean leisure activities that are deviant and what deviants do for leisure) at The University of Alberta he happened upon an article on sadomasochism (it’s deviant behavior see the connection?) and became interested in the topic. After carefully considering the idea, Dr. Williams decides to visit a Mistress in Edmonton, Mistress Kitten, who introduces him to the world of BDSM. From his initial experience, he is hooked. Chronologically, the book begins just as he finds the article on sadomasochism and follows his nearly year-long participation in the BDSM scene in Edmonton then concludes a couple years after he leaves Edmonton (his post-doc ends and he pursues various other job opportunities).
This is a difficult book to review. Why? Because the book is an autoethnography (p. 5). What is an autoethnography? It’s basically a combination of an auto-biography and participant observation, but is supposed to contribute to the advance of science at the same time. Dr. Williams loosely justifies this approach with references to qualitative researchers who have explored this technique (e.g., Denzin and Lincoln discuss it in their reviews of qualitative research). The justification for using this technique is rooted in a post-modernist critique of empiricism. Basically, the argument goes like this: Most scholars don’t write from an auto-biographical perspective as they want to seem objective, but no one is objective, and stories are very compelling. Rather than feign objectivity, the auto-ethnographer throws objectivity out and simply writes from a subjective perspective, telling his/her story, but, in the end, the idea is still to draw scientific conclusions. As a scholar, I’ve used both quantitative and qualitative research and am perhaps more sympathetic to qualitative research than are most academics. Yet, despite my sympathies toward qualitative research, I’m still quite skeptical of autoethnography. I’m not alone in my skepticism (see Holt 2003 for an autoethnographical account of skepticism of authoethnography). Basically, autoethnography seems problematic because it is drawing conclusions from a sample of one, which scientists are trained not to do, and the approach is purely subjective, which scientists are also trained to avoid. That said, I can see the utility in the approach given very specific situations. As Holt (2003) notes, when a scholar is examining a topic that is deviant or at the margins of society, autoethnography can allow them to present their research in a way that challenges the status quo. BDSM certainly fits the bill on this point. Yet, it seems to me as though autoethnography will never truly gain mainstream legitimacy as a research technique because it is too subjective. It’s more of a technique used to break ground in area, but not to make substantial contributions to the general understanding of the phenomenon. In short, I can see the utility of the technique for exploring certain topics, but I remain quite skeptical of the extent to which autoethnography can contribute scientifically.
I’m not sure what the publication history of this book is, but I may not be the only person who has expressed skepticism about its contribution. I’m wondering if the book was rejected by various presses before it was self-published through booklocker.com. This may speak to the general lack of acceptance of autoethnography or other problems with the book. One of those problems is that the author, having published in the areas of deviance and sexuality, has the potential to provide a solid review of the literature on BDSM, but intentionally chooses not to (p. 7). There is no literature review and only a few references at the back of the book on BDSM. I hate to suggest it, but I have to wonder if the lack of a literature review is intentional because such a thorough literature review may have revealed that the scientific community knows a lot more about BDSM than is suggested in the book (see Kleinplatz and Moser 2006). Since the book is justified based on the lack of first-hand knowledge of BDSM by scholars (p. 23), recognizing the large body of research on BDSM would undermine that justification. However, to a scholar like myself, it is precisely a review of the existing literature on BDSM that would be helpful to set the groundwork for a personal foray into this world. The lack of a thorough literature review, then, is disappointing. Additionally, when scholarship is mentioned, it’s not referenced in any common fashion (e.g., in-line citations or footnotes); scholars are mentioned by name and their research is cursorily described, but no actual reference to their work is provided. This is awkward as it reflects a lack of clarity by the author as to who the audience is. Certainly experts on BDSM will recognize the names dropped by the author, which would, I guess, obviate including references. But that would suggest the audience will be other scholars studying BDSM, rather than people generally interested in BDSM and practitioners, neither of whom would likely be familiar with the scholars mentioned. So, even when scholarship is described, which is rarely, it is not done so in a traditional way that would allow people to track down that scholarship.
While I also point out some critiques of the book from an autoethnographical perspective below, I want to note that the ultimate contribution of this book to the study of BDSM isn’t clear. Yes, it does give first-hand accounts of BDSM, both from the perspectives of submissives and Dominants. Some of this descriptive material is quite engaging and even insightful. For instance, on page 43 Dr. Williams notes just how intense BDSM play is it requires all of your attention and focus, My mind is fully present. I am one-hundred percent in this moment. There is no past and no future. The outside world no longer exists. There is nothing but me and my Mistress in this strange little place. Even the researcher part of me has vanished. I am vulnerable and raw. Having experienced moments like this personally, I can understand what he was experiencing. This is a useful contribution, I believe.
However, a theoretical understanding of BDSM is virtually neglected in the book. This is also unfortunate as I believe the author had the potential to develop an intriguing theoretical framework casting BDSM as a type of deviant leisure given his scholarship into leisure. This approach is set up early in the book (p. 22) as the author notes that BDSM could be considered a type of leisure. But there is really only one other mention of this (p. 50) where the author concludes that BDSM meets all the criteria of leisure, Was my experience with Kitten a form of deviant leisure or possibly healthy leisure? Absolutely! It was incredibly playful, which would indicate a style of leisure. The time flew by – another property of leisure. There were a variety of positive emotions associated with the experience, including a sense of personal freedom. It suddenly occurs to one how being tied up can feel so freeing. Erotic activities may be very unusual, even taboo, in our society, but many can be practiced safely and carefully. BDSM may be deviant leisure in that our culture denies it as being deviant. However, I can see how may also have properties associated with normal, healthy leisure. So, BDSM can be considered a type of leisure. I get that. But what does that mean? Why is this useful to know? How can or should this change society? Unfortunately, none of those questions are answered. A carefully constructed theory of BDSM as leisure would have been a very useful contribution of this book. Unfortunately, it’s missing. What’s more, toward the end of the book, a completely different understanding of BDSM is mentioned; BDSM is cast as a type of erotic gift (p. 207). This, too, is an interesting idea, but discussion of this idea is limited to one paragraph. Again, I’m left wondering what this erotic gift idea means and how it is important for the bigger picture in society. From an academic point of view, this book falls short in using autoethnography to contribute compelling theoretical frameworks for understanding BDSM.
As noted above, I’m not an autoethnographer. Having limited exposure to such work, I’m probably not ideally suited to evaluate it at the level of autoethnography, but I’m going to try. One problem I see from the autoethnographical perspective is that the focus of the book is on BDSM, which is, of course, erotic in nature. But the BDSM experiences he describes do not include sexual intimacy. While Dr. Williams has to be commended for his openness and willingness to describe his participation in these activities, I think he may not have gone quite far enough in his descriptions. He notes that prior to encountering the article on BDSM he was already into spanking and sex toys in his personal sex life (p. 24), but he omits any discussion of sexual intercourse during the time period explored in the book. It was pretty clear that he was not having sex with Mistress Kitten, his first mistress. But his relationship with his second mistress, Mistress Midnight, was very different from that with Mistress Kitten and seemed to cross from BDSM play into sexual intercourse, though that was never stated explicitly. The intermingling between BDSM play and sexual intercourse is completely omitted from the book. Do Dominants never have sex with submissives? Does the relationship between Mistresses and their submissives never go as far sexual intecourse? Perhaps this is too personal to include in the book, but given the nature of the subject of inquiry, it seems like this is an unfortunate omission. This is especially true in light of the fact that Dr. Williams openly admits to his attraction to many of the women he sees in the BDSM community. Was he not having sex during this period? Would that not be important to know in trying to understand the relationship between Mistress and submissive?
Holt (2003), while arguing that traditional criticisms of academic scholarship don’t always apply to autoethnography, does note that autoethnographies can be criticized based on the quality of the writing. Playing Dangerous Games is not horribly written, but it could have used the guidance of a very good editor (there are issues with present and past tense, that are somewhat annoying; cf p. 220). At times the book focuses too much on irrelevant details (p. 20). There are also irrelevant asides, like a long diatribe on politics that seems wholly out of place (p. 152). Some sections are repeated, in fact I found one paragraph that was copied nearly word for word from earlier in the book (p. 183). A good editor would have caught that. Finally, Holt notes that autoethnography has been described as narcissistic. While I won’t go so far as to describe this book as narcissistic, I think there is a little bit of narcissism at times (segments on p. 134 and p. 194 are quite self-congratulatory). Given the focus on the self, it must be hard to avoid narcissism, but I think Dr. Williams generally does a decent job of avoiding it.
A relatively minor issue that came up a couple of times in the book that I think is worth noting was a slight reversal of bias. While I discuss the major contribution of this book below the advocating of openness about sexuality it did seem as though the author took this argument and the defense of BDSM and other forms of sexual expression a little too far at times. For instance, on page 30 he writes, Of course, there has been much research on sexuality and gender since, yet we havent made sufficient progress. Too often, we still privilege bland, monogamous, heterosexuality within marriage. And on page 230 he describes a student interested in exploring BDSM this way, or students like Megan, who live a more traditional relationship but badly want to spice it up in ways that reflect more authentic living. In the first quote, he equates monogamous heterosexuality with blandness and in the second he implies that monogamous heterosexuality is not authentic. I may have noticed these points because I’m a married, monogamous heterosexual, and thus see it as a criticism of my own sexuality. Certainly we live in a heteronormative world, and even a sexually repressed world. I’ll grant him both of those points. But I also think he may be overlooking the benefits of monogamy. Having a single, committed partner is not only what a lot of people want, but is also advantageous when it comes to things like STDs, marital harmony, and jealousy. Again, I don’t want to give the impression that I have issues with open marriages, swinging, or anything of the sort. I fully embrace any type of sexual arrangement between consenting adults. But if what consenting adults select is married, heterosexual monogamy, I don’t think they should be criticized for that. I also don’t think it’s inauthentic. And it certainly doesn’t have to be bland!
Having laid bare some of the problems with the book, let me turn to some of the attributes. In my opinion, the real contribution of Playing Dangerous Games is the advocacy for alternative sexualities. Basically, the author argues that we, as a society and as people, should more openly discuss and explore sex and sexuality (p. 4). I agree wholeheartedly. Despite things like the sexual revolution and the sexualization of the media, we are a remarkably repressed society, sexually. Not to put Europe on a pedestal, but most countries in Europe have much lower rates of rape and sexual assault, and many experts attribute this to both the legalization of prostitution and the openness of sexual exploration in those countries. By showing that practitioners of BDSM are normal people exploring alternative behaviors that they find pleasing, arousing, and erotic in healthy ways, Playing Dangerous Games has the potential to open peoples’ minds to the possibilities of sexual exploration. Admittedly he reiterates that this is his goal at least a dozen times, if not more. But it is a worthy goal and one that is accomplished by this book.
While I’m generally not a fan of post-modernism, Playing Dangerous Games uses post-modernism to deconstruct the heteronormativity of U.S. (and Canadian) culture. While the argument of the book that BDSM is a healthy and safe way to explore sexuality if done right (p. 70) would have been bolstered by a good review of the empirical literature, the book itself illustrates this point.
Finally, there is the issue of religion, which is why I was asked to review this book. As noted earlier in this review, the author was raised Mormon. Mormonism is such an all-encompassing religion that it is hard to ever leave it. Or, perhaps more accurately stated, you can cease being part of the Mormon religion, but Mormonism never ceases being a part of you. This is certainly true of Dr. Williams. However, I don’t want to overstate the role of Mormonism in the book. At best, Mormonism can be described as a subtheme of the book. It’s not mentioned until page 24, and by page 33 it seemed like it was just an afterthought. However, Mormonism does play a minor role, and some of the ways it manifests itself are intriguing.
What’s not clear in the several instances when the author describes leaving the religion is precisely why he left. He initially offers just this vague denouement, There came a time for me when the Mormon belief system no longer made sense, and some alternative explanations made better sense (p. 79; a similar explanation is provided on p. 40). Later in the book he offers the following criticism of the religion, but not as a rationale for leaving, My Church didnt tell me about its secret meetings and deals, its history of discrimination and violence, and how numerous essential doctrines had been changed (p. 126). As someone who studies people leaving religions, I have to admit I’m not sure I understand what happened. Not that people need to have a clear reason to leave a religion (in fact, many don’t; they just drift away), but given the suddenness of his departure from Mormonism, it seems as though more may have been going on then he lets on in his vague descriptions. This is also reinforced by the fact that his leaving was so hard on him, pushing him to the edge of suicide (pp. 40-41). Having exited the role of Mormon myself, I know this is hard. But I’m intrigued by how hard it was for him and, again, left wanting more details on his exit from Mormonism. Dr. Williams notes that his exit from Mormonism strained relations with his parents and family (p. 79) and also seems to suggest this may be tied to his divorce from his ex-wife (who is still a practicing Mormon in the book). While the focus of the book is on his foray into BDSM, from my perspective as a scholar of Mormonism and the non-religious, I couldn’t help but want more information on why he left.
A more substantial contribution may result from simply the publication of this book. It could inspire scholars to investigate Mormon sexuality. As noted above, Mormonism is virtually impossible to get out of your system if you were ever fully entangled in the religion. Dr. Williams realizes this as he enters the world of BDSM. He is, of course, conflicted about what he is experiencing and realizes that much of this is tied to his upbringing as a Mormon, Somehow, I learned throughout my youth that sexuality was something bad. Not just a little bad-a lot bad! Sexual behaviors were not to be engaged in until marriage. The Book of Mormon even teaches that sexual sin is next to committing murder in its severity. Masturbation is even considered a serious sin (p. 94). As he explores very intimate, erotic BDSM play with his first Mistress, who is basically a stranger, he is forced to confront what he was taught about sexuality growing up sex and almost all expressions of intimacy are limited to heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Perhaps I found this brief discussion of his Mormon socialization most interesting because I can best relate to it. But I think Dr. Williams makes some good points here.
The best point he makes in this regard is that his BDSM experiences were not only life and worldview altering, but they were very fulfilling (p. 101). He felt a great deal of satisfaction and peace after engaging in BDSM play. Yet, Mormonism would consider what he was doing sinful (outside of marriage; inside, well, that’s a different issue). And using its ability to socially construct reality for its members, that sinfulness would translate into guilt and inner turmoil. What Dr. Williams does is deconstruct the Mormon notion of sin and show it for what it really is: a tool of the religion that controls followers and justifies the existence of the religion. Sin is only sin if you accept the social construction of it as sin. Once Dr. Williams realizes that he is not only not feeling guilt, but feeling great as a result of his BDSM experiences, he realizes that BDSM does not have to make you feel guilty. It only makes you feel guilty if you believe it will. Religion, then, exists only in the realm of social constructions. Deconstruct it and its hold over you disappears.
Dr. Williams contrasts his very positive BDSM experience with his first experience going through the Mormon temple to receive his endowments (pp. 124-126). He, quite rightly in my opinion, reverses the morality of the two situations. In BDSM, everyone involved is willing and fully aware of what is happening. In Mormon temple ceremonies, new initiates are usually ignorant of what they are doing and are generally pressured into making life-altering (even eternity-altering) commitments by their family and friends who are all expecting them to go through with the ceremony without raising objections. In other words, BDSM practitioners are informed and consenting while temple initiates are ignorant and pressured. Which of the two is moral? I think the answer is obvious and I think this is a great point.
The inability of former Mormons to extricate Mormonism from their identities also plays out in what I found to be a particularly hilarious situation (though I’m sure Dr. Williams didn’t consider it hilarious when he was experiencing it or when writing about it). He was temple endowed prior to 1990, when the penalties were removed. Thus, he is familiar with the penalties that inductees will face if they do not live up to their covenants. One of these penalties is to have your throat slit from ear-to-ear. Under his second mistress, Mistress Midnight, he engages in play one night that involves her holding a sharp knife under his chin to dominate him. What happens next you should read in the author’s words, Midnights deadly weapon remains at my throat while my mind wanders back twenty years to the covenants I made in the temple with the penalty of death. Fuck! I scream silently to myself. This is how Im going to die, and maybe I deserve it! I made those promises all those years ago. Now its time I pay up. (pp. 126-127). Having experienced flashbacks to my Mormon days myself (none as extreme as this), I literally laughed out loud when I read this. Obviously it’s serious, but in a certain sense it’s also quite funny. Highlighting the empathetic nature of BDSM, Mistress Midnight saw that Dr. Williams had cognitively gone somewhere unhealthy so she stopped the scene and did her best to comfort him. That kind of concern for the mental health of the individual doesn’t happen in Mormon temples. The irony…
I realized as I was reading this that there is virtually no research on the sexual practices and attitudes of Mormons. That seems like it could be not only a fruitful but fascinating area of research for a young scholar with access to Mormons. I would be particularly interested to know if Mormons are conflicted in their sexuality, particularly if they engage in any play or sexual practices that are considered deviant in the Mormon subculture (e.g., anal or oral sex, fantasy play, etc.). This book could serve as a launching point for investigations into the intersections of sexuality and religious teaching on sex in Mormonism.
Overall, while a problematic book in many ways, this book does have its merits. The advocacy of open discussion and exploration of sexuality probably balances out the fact that this argument is made using autoethnographic techniques that are marginally scientific at best. The first-hand accounts of BDSM practice are worthwhile, but would have been bolstered by a solid literature review and a clear theoretical outline of BDSM as either deviant leisure or erotic gift. And the lack of a coherent exit narrative from Mormonism is offset by insights into sin and morality. I definitely don’t think most people will be interested in this book, but for those looking for a first-hand account of someone who enters the world of BDSM and then writes fairly openly about it, you may find this book an interesting and quick read.
Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln. 2007. Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. 3rd ed. Sage Publications, Inc.
Holt, Nicholas L. (2003). Representation, legitimation, and autoethnography: An autoethnographic writing story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(1).
Kleinplatz, Peggy J., Ph.D., and Charles, Ph.D., M.D. Moser. 2006. Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. 1st ed. Routledge.
Williams, D J. 2010.Playing Dangerous Games: The Personal Story of a Social Scientist Entering the Complex World of Sexual Sadomasochism. Booklocker.com, Inc.