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Staci Newmahr, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy

2016, Vol. 19(1/2) 257–259
!The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/1363460715599135
Book Review
Staci Newmahr, Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2011; 228 pp ISBN: 978 0 253 22285 5, £17.99
An important and recent social trend in the study of sexualities has been the shift in
how sadomasochism (SM) is perceived, both in popular culture and in academic
research. This includes greater integration in mainstream movies, moving from
incidental story lines to the central tenet of the primary Valentine’s Day movie
release of 2015 – Fifty Shades of Grey. Indeed, the sex industry has radically shifted
and begun mainstreaming soft kink, such as Ann Summers stocking handcuffs and
suit ties inspired by the movie (Evans and Riley, 2014).
Academic research has charted this transition. While research from a medical
and legal perspective traditionally viewed SM as an unsafe sexual practice, current
research from other disciplines, such as sociological and cultural, is seeking to
move beyond this, examining SM using non-pathological frameworks with a
focus on the benefits of engaging in SM (e.g. see Langdridge and Barker, 2007).
Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk and Intimacy is an exciting socio-
logical contribution to academic explorations of SM, providing an empirically rich
window into a rarely seen SM community.
Immersing herself within a mostly heterosexual SM community in the heart of
San Francisco that she calls the Caeden community, Staci Newmahr provides
insights into the value of being part of such a community. Newmahr carefully
explicates the workings of the community to engage with broader theoretically
deep questions related to SM and sexuality.
Newmahr manages to solidify her position in the community, firstly as a
researcher-observer then as a researcher-participant. Through this immersion,
she is able to document experiences which often seem normal or ‘uninteresting
for community members’ (p. 15), yet would appear exotic when situated within a
normative community, such as the norms involved when engaging in conversations
with people or the experience of an alternative headspace when engaging in SM.
Furthermore, by engaging with the Caeden community through working at com-
munity events, participating at committee meetings and helping to introduce new
members into the scene, she negotiated a level of acceptance that could not be
achieved otherwise.
The book is divided into three parts, focusing on: the people of the SM com-
munity; the play, which occurs between these people; and the edges of play, exam-
ining the complex roles of pain and intimacy within the community. Part one
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provides a rich background of the individuals at the heart of the Caeden commu-
nity. Newmahr shows how they were ‘accustomed to defiance [of hegemonic social
norms] long before their entrance into the SM scene’ (p. 26) through not fitting in
while growing up, and were familiar ‘to defining themselves as outsiders’ (p. 38).
Her arguments about how the effects of stigma and social exclusion helped form
the ethos of the Caeden community are traditionally sociological, as she highlights
the shared histories of marginality and new-found sense of belonging once having
joined the community.
Part two concentrates on the SM activities, focusing on the social benefits of
SM, deconstructing the sexual and non-sexual in a SM context, and highlighting
the complex role of gender performance. Newmahr explains how the individuals do
not see SM as role play but rather ‘the enactment of fantasy’ (p. 61), such as the
fantasy of a master/slave relationship. Strategies are used to keep SM as real as
possible, shown interchangeably through the use of power exchange, playing with
gender roles, and the reliance on reputations.
In highlighting the components of SM play, Newmahr uses the serious leisure
framework as a way of ‘shifting the focus away from the ultimately unhelpful
questions about whether SM is or is not deviant sex, and allows us to understand
SM as... social behavior’ (p. 102). She views SM as a leisure activity akin to other
serious leisure pursuits, such as rock climbing, and judges SM as both a risky and
pleasurable activity. Key components of viewing SM as serious leisure include the
trust felt amongst the community, the satisfaction felt in achieving desired out-
comes and a chance for individuals to become experts at something. Despite dif-
ficulty in separating the sexual and non-sexual aspects of SM due to its subjective
nature, Newmahr powerfully articulates the panoply of nuanced understandings
amongst the community.
In part three, Newmahr discusses broader theoretical issues that arise from SM
play. In tackling the common ‘feminist’ critiques of SM as violence, she highlights
how participants generally have an active opposition to this characterization.
Newmahr usefully compares SM against alternative examples of violence and
pain, such as boxing or child-birth, to demonstrate the importance of consent
and context in discussing how some activities/experiences are ‘romanticized and
glorified even as its pain is recognized as such’ (p. 141). Newmahr is keen to inform
us that while rules, such minimizing risks when engaging in SM or ensuring all
individuals are fully aware of what they are consenting to, play a defining role in
the community, those who play on the boundaries of those rules do so through
experience, trust, and maintaining a close level of intimacy.
Newmahr’s ethnographic approach enables her to understand SM from an alter-
native viewpoint, contrary to previous studies on SM which either relied on ques-
tionnaire data or pathologized the activity. This is most notable when Newmahr
demonstrates herself as both an insider and outsider of the community; while being
close enough to hear and understand the narratives of the community, she is able to
recognize idiosyncratic moments which highlight the differences between her and
the community, (p. 33) – she did not join the community from the margins of
258 Sexualities 19(1/2)
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society like most members, providing no indications that her upbringing was simi-
lar to others in the community. While Newmahr may not share this sense of
wanting to belong, which brought the community together, she provides poignant
backgrounds of the participants to help us ‘get it’ (p. 44).
While other researchers have carried out ethnographies on kink communities
(e.g. Weiss, 2011), the researcher-participant approach provides insights that might
be impossible to attain without active engagement in the practices and experiences
of SM. On the evidence of Newmahr’s book, this approach can help to broaden the
research on SM, and perhaps sexualities research more generally – how richer are
the stories heard by somebody who ‘plays’ alongside the research subjects.
Playing on the Edge is a welcome addition to the literature in showcasing the
nuances of an SM community. While Newmahr is clear to stress that she is telling
the story of one of many existing SM communities, it is clear how her conclusions
can be applied more broadly. Indeed, the book is timely given the current interests
in kink fuelled by the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and other contemporary
discourses of sexiness drawing on SM fashions and/or sensibilities. The book pro-
motes a positive framing on SM with a focus on the benefits for its practitioners.
More generally, Newmahr presents Playing on the Edge in a highly accessible
manner and it is a pleasure to read.
Evans A and Riley S (2014) Technologies of Sexiness: Sex, Identity and Consumer Culture.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Langdridge D and Barker M (2007) Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives
on Sadomasochism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Weiss M (2011) Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press.
Liam Wignall
University of Sunderland, UK
Book Review 259
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Techniques of Pleasure is a vivid portrayal of the San Francisco Bay Area’s pansexual BDSM (SM) community. Margot Weiss conducted ethnographic research at dungeon play parties and at workshops on bondage, role play, and flogging, and she interviewed more than sixty SM practitioners. She describes a scene devoted to a form of erotic play organized around technique, rules and regulations, consumerism, and self-mastery. Challenging the notion that SM is inherently transgressive, Weiss links the development of commodity-oriented sexual communities and the expanding market for sex toys to the eroticization of gendered, racialized, and national inequalities. She analyzes the politics of BDSM’s spectacular performances, including those that dramatize heterosexual male dominance, slave auctions, and US imperialism, and contends that the SM scene is not a “safe space” separate from real-world inequality. It depends, like all sexual desire, on social hierarchies. Based on this analysis, Weiss theorizes late-capitalist sexuality as a circuit—one connecting the promise of new emancipatory pleasures to the reproduction of raced and gendered social norms.
Psychological and medical perspectives on sadomasochism (SM) have historically been concerned with understanding it as a form of psychopathology. In the past (but still often today) studies of SM have been concerned with extreme and most often non-consensual acts. More recently, however, there has been growing interest in exploring the meaning of sadomasochism in non-pathological ways. Safe, Sane and Consensual includes work from across the social sciences exploring a variety of aspects of SM from a non-pathological perspective. There are discussions of the history and culture of SM, medical and legal understandings, along with theory and original research on the topic. There are also sections on SM and psychotherapy and writing on bridging the academic/activist divide. The book includes contributions from an international group of academics, practitioners and activists and represents some of the most recent cutting edge work in the field by leading scholars.