When it comes to sex and sexuality, the word ‘community’ is very popular. For example, I considered myself a part of the BDSM community for a very long time because it provided a place, structure, and group of people with whom I could seek revelatory experiences with sex. Over time I’ve come to question the word ‘community’ and how it’s used. It’s often disputed in an all or nothing way which I think fails to capture the situation. Human behavior is not black and white. It never has been, it never will be. There are a confluence of factors that go into the way that people lead their lives and it is not my place to say that someone will or will not experience a sense of community, nor can I speak to the impetus that brought them there. Some people will come and go, others will come and go and come back again.
I’ve been doing an extensive study of religion lately and a lot of it has been very illuminating for the structure of sex communities. Sex is a state of altered consciousness and as such, it has a lot in common with religious communities. Emile Durkheim, for instance, speaks of religion as a “manifestation of social solidarity and collective beliefs.” In their estimation, members of a society create sacred objects, rituals, beliefs, and special symbols to integrate their culture. Even this can be too simple because there is so much diversity in cognitive and phenomenal displayed in any given religious experience.
Some define religion as something that necessitates communion with the supernatural, others do not. The reliance of symbol and rite as a means to organize abstract concepts in terms of concrete symbols to make speculation possible is a key component but may not always be seen. Again, the diversity of religion and its expression makes a definition hard to pin down. There are the ideas and beliefs we hold deep in our hearts and there are our ways of relating them to others around us. As I continued reading, I realized that in many ways the BDSM subculture is very much a ‘religious institution’ by the more broad definitions that highlight their social and cultural implications. This is no surprise: sexuality and sexual rites have been parts of religion since ancient ages. I think also of how common it is to hear someone describe good sex as, “seeing God” whether or not they were believers in an extra-corporeal entity.
Anthony F. C. Wallace posited a typology that really resonates when it is used as a model to examine BDSM. He posited the concept of a ‘cult institution’ defined as, “a set of rituals all having the same general goal, all explicitly rationalized by a set of similar or related beliefs, all supported by the same social group.” He goes on to define 4 types of cult institutions.
1. Individualistic cult institutions: each person is a specialist of their own experience without the need of an intermediary.
2. Shamanic cult institutions: individual religious practitioners designated by birth, experience, or special training are solicited and supported by individuals who seek their aid in experiencing or interpreting spiritual matters.
3. Communal cult institutions: lay people in a given place or community work together to construct rituals for the benefit of their communities. Those with special skill sets may be hired for their specific expertise in dancing, speaking, making music, or spirituality to help support their dedication to their craft so that it may be called upon by the community but there is no definitive hierarchy. There is a focus on the benefit of the community as a whole or with a focus on specific groups with a particular need.
4. Ecclesiastical cult institutions: a hierarchical division of labor in which there is a professional hierarchy who lead and dictate the religious experience to lay people who are passive participants rather than active organizers of their own experience. The professional clergy will monopolize religious knowledge and direct the rights and rituals rather than letting participants lead with their own needs and knowledge.
When it comes to BDSM, there are people who staunchly believe that we define our own roles and experiences and outside influence is either unnecessary or perhaps even negative for the experience. They don’t identify with BDSM nor do they attend events but they do create their own structure of expression alone or with specific partners without any involvement from outside figures. The shamanic model is similar to that of a sex work or therapeutic context. Someone may seek out an individual who spends their time studying all aspects of a sexual scenario and are supported with food, money, goods, or other services so that they may be available when someone calls upon them. They may want to experience bondage and so they seek out a bondage professional to help guide them have the experience they seek.
When it comes to BDSM communities, I think that as a whole the subculture flutters in between a communal form and an ecclesiastical one. Many BDSM groups, especially when it was illegal and dangerous to be a known participant, were communal in form. Individuals would ban together to find a space for shared sexual rites for their community and create a safe context for them to occur. They might seek out the expertise of sex workers or specialists of bondage, piercing, erotic dancing, or speakers and teachers who dedicate their lives to esoteric sexual crafts and give them an offering for what they bring to the group but group rituals are not professional ventures. However, as BDSM is increasingly assimilated into mainstream culture, we see the ecclesiastical model rise into prominence. There are individuals who professionally host parties for a living and become, in essence, BDSM clergy. They are the actors of the event and they make a clear division between lay people who are recipients.
Part of what Wallace uses to define an ecclesiastical cult is the fact that it will begin to compete with the other 3 formats and denounce individualism, shamanic, and communal forms. This is echoed in many BDSM institutions where individuals are told not to rely on their own experiences and knowledge and skill sets in favor of what clergy have presented and vetted for them. I cannot and do not suggest that parties are useless. For marginalized communities, a party can be a critical way to build solidarity, create an arena for expression, and to experience the powerful rush of pleasure, hormones, and an inexplicable rush of electrical impulses to the brain that cannot be easily explained by even our greatest scientists. Those moments of pleasure and bonding and intimacy can be a vital component of compelling revolutionary social change.
The ecclesiastical models of cult institutions don’t always have the same agenda. They do more to promote the top of the hierarchy than they do the group as a whole. Rather than having rituals that are tailor fit to specific times and specific places and specific groups, they begin to become overly homogenized and rapidly lose their potential for revolutionary magic because they focus on maintaining stasis.
This topology demonstrates why a dismissal of BDSM as a whole entity is ineffective. A closer examination of different group models can help inform your own needs and beliefs in relation to a group. Speaking of BDSM as a monolith isn’t helpful. There is great variation in size and scope. I’ll often hear about tight knit BDSM communities in smaller cities in extensively conservative climates that do not have the option of an ecclesiastical model and do seek to create the safest space possible with available resources. In bigger cities that are much more liberal, an ecclesiastical model can emerge and gain momentum and may even begin to eclipse smaller communal institutions by creating a standard for what BDSM means.
However, this is a rough sketch and cannot definitely identify all the modes and modalities in which people explore their own erotic interiors and engage with the mystery of sexuality. It does offer a theoretical model of exploration and further discussion.