Sexy warriors: the politics and pleasures of submission to the
Jesse Paul Crane-Seebera*
Published online: 23 Feb 2016, at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23337486.2016.1144402
(please note: this is a pre-print version that differs from the final
version, especially in page numbering and other formatting)
This essay examines links between sexuality, sexiness, and militarized bodies. While scholars have
persuasively established links between militarization, hyper-masculine identities, and sexual assault, I
want to trouble the soldier as an object of desire, not merely as a subject imposing violence. This paper
analyses the fetishism of militarization to argue that the relationship between soldiers’ bodies and the
state might be usefully understood using theoretical categories derived from kink communities. While few
would dispute that dominance and submission are involved in all hierarchical social relations, I follow
Foucault in arguing that communities that eroticize these roles have broadly applicable insights into the
productivity of power. Combining theoretical arguments with empirical illustrations of how fetishism and
militarization concatenate, I demonstrate how to think critically about the relationships between gender,
war, desire, and agency. I do so because, like it or not, war is sexy in contemporary US culture.
domination and submission
Sebastian Junger, whose documentaries Restrepo and Korengal (Junger and Hetherington 2010, 2014)
were produced while he was embedded with US airborne forces in Afghanistan, recently argued that
‘people would have a more honest, realistic relationship to the important topic of war […] If they could
actually acknowledge that part of themselves that responds to it positively’ (Gault and Junger 2015). Not
unlike Junger, I believe that identifying the pleasures of militarization might help to ‘acknowledge that part’
of ourselves that desires militarization. This article asks what it means that war is sexy in contemporary
US culture. I hope that understanding that desire might suggest ways to challenge it.
Fashion has rendered camouflage and cargo pants a form of everyday apparel (Steele 2001;
Tynan 2013), militarized male bodies receive attention that other heterosexual male bodies do not, and
military training regimes are imitated by civilians (McSorley 2016, this issue). These phenomena deserve
further explanation. I enter them by analysing the fetishism of militarization and the militarization of fetish
scenes to look at linkages between eroticism, desire, and war making. Along the way I suggest that
militarized male bodies, submissive to the state, are rewarded with the sort of sex appeal that only
massive symbolic power can bestow (Tynan 2013, 80–1).
I recently overheard a young woman, sitting in a coffee shop with friends, say: ‘When the ROTC1 guys run
past, all the girls are like “Hey, you have to come now, they’re here!”’ A young man, laughing awkwardly,
asks: ‘What time do they come out?’ She replies: ‘Early! Those guys in uniform are so hot though, it’s
worth it, and we all come out to see them’. It is rare in US culture for heterosexual women to talk about
heterosexual men in such objectified ways. As Jessica Benjamin (1988) argues, healthy adult
relationships require the recognition of a partner’s subject-hood, as an equal yet differentiated other. But,
she also explains, sexual desire is at least partially object-oriented. In popular representations of
heterosexual relationships, it is assumed that the male subject is the desiring agent, while the female is
the desired object. Yet, as the old adage goes, many ‘love a man in uniform’. Rather than accept this as
an interesting quirk, or perhaps the residue of an evolutionary selection for war-heroism (Rusch,
Leunissen, and van Vugt 2015), I want to take the fetishization of the militarized male body seriously.
Scholarship on militarized masculinities is not new, nor are concerns with how societies use gendered
categories and practices to prepare for, legitimate, and describe war (Cohn 1993; Jeffords 1994;
Connell 1995; Zalewski and Parpart 1998; Hooper 2001; Hutchings 2008). Where many accounts of
global politics take discourse, culture, or collective action as objects of analysis, the complexity and
diversity of militarized masculinities for men and women in uniform is still an emerging literature
(Higate 2003; Patel and Tripodi 2007; Sasson-Levy 2007). Many of these studies, particularly those by
Higate and Sasson-Levy, help demonstrate the plurality and diversity of what was once described as
military masculinity in the singular.
Studies of militarized identities have helped prompt a recent2 focus on embodiment (Neumann 2014),
including this special issue. In that vein, Wilcox’s (2014, 2015) work to theorize embodiment in war from a
Butlerian perspective has brought attention to surveillance practices that make some bodies visible,
grievable, or killable. At a more experiential level, Dyvik’s (2016) study of Norwegian soldiers’ memoirs,
as well as Sylvester’s (2013) and McSorley’s (2013) analysis of war as an affective, physical process,
demonstrate that there is much to be learned about how people experience war. In this article, my focus
is not on war, per se, but rather the complicated psycho-sexual dynamics of soldiers’ relationships to their
own militarized bodies.
Feminist scholars have long noted and interrogated the politics of militarized prostitution, war rape, and
sexual harassment within the armed forces (Alison 2007; Higate 2007; Lilly 2007). Misogynistic and
sexual violence fit with popular culture’s quasi-naturalized ‘man as predator’ narrative (McCaughey 2008).
Numerous authors have persuasively established links between militarization, hyper-masculine identities,
and sexual assault (McClintock 1995; Enloe 2000, ch. 4; Goldstein 2001, ch. 6; Franklin 2004; Richter-
Montpetit 2007; Owens 2010; Zurbriggen 2010; Kirby 2012; Richter-Montpetit 2014). This is an essential
area of research to understand linkages between war and sexuality. Still, I want to trouble the militarized
male as an object of desire, as more than a subject imposing violence. In this sense, Belkin’s (2012) work
on the complexity of male-male sexual encounters within the US military provides inspiration. He
demonstrates how the instability of categories of sexual identity yields an almost constant search for a
secure masculinity, with fascinating implications for sex within the military.
While few would dispute that dominance and submission are involved in all hierarchical social relations, I
follow Michel Foucault (1984) in arguing that communities that eroticize these roles have broadly
applicable insights into the productivity of power. Rather than see the sexualization of warriors as an
imposition, a hegemonically dictated push from above, I am interested in identifying the modes of desire
and pleasure that link militarization and eroticism in unique ways, following what Cynthia Weber called a
‘queer intellectual curiosity’ (2015). This paper analyses the fetishization of militarized male bodies,
meaning the erotic objectification and imbuing with psychologically charged associations.3 I argue that the
relationship between soldiers’ bodies and the state might be usefully understood using theoretical
categories derived from kink4communities. Unlike civilian masculinities linked to independence, I view
militarized males’ masochistic surrender to state authority as carrying pleasures that a kink-informed
theoretical lens can help clarify.
The article proceeds as follows. I first explain how I came to see overlaps between military service and
kink, then outline a kink-informed queer theory of militarization, and finally reflect on several empirical
connections between kink, BDSM, and the military, before circling back around to Junger’s observations.
Combining theoretical arguments with an empirical look at how fetishism and militarization concatenate, I
suggest several possible avenues for further research on the psycho-sexual pleasures of militarized
bodies and their relationship with political authority. In seeking to simultaneously address the growing
community of scholars interested in the generative productivity of war (Barkawi 2011) and support the
articulation of queer theoretical insights for making sense of politics (Richter-Montpetit 2007; Weber 2014;
Wool 2015), I hope to contribute to a broader understanding of how power, desire, pleasure, and agency
come together in militarization.
The a-ha moment: observations from field notes5
I am in a bar in a small town in Germany in 2005. It is full of sunburned and weary-looking US troops just
let off-base for the first time after an extended deployment in Iraq. I am talking with my close friend,
whose family I frequently visited while waiting for the unit to return so I could do the interviews I had
planned for my dissertation research. He is a sergeant and introduces me to some of the young soldiers
who served with him. After making fun of my clothes, earring, nose ring, and soft body, we talk while they
enjoy a few drinks. They are bemoaning their curfew, mandatory counselling groups, 5:30 a.m. runs, etc. I
say something offhanded about not having control of their lives, about being treated like prisoners. I am
trying to build rapport so I can schedule follow-up interviews. Instead, I am showered in homophobia. It’s
not the first time that trying to interview soldiers has resulted in gendered and sexualized comparisons,
and my civilian body was usually a primary point of conversation. One man chimes in, only partially to my
defence, to emphasize the ways that discipline creates strength, something a civilian ‘can’t understand’.
He quotes the old military adage that ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’ (cf. Stump2010).
At first I’m surprised, then I laugh, and later that night, looking in the mirror, I notice myself agreeing with
their assessment of me: for a moment, the man I see in the mirror is indeed a chubby little faggot.6 What
matters here is not that insults resonate with the alternate and latent selves7 within me that long to be
explicitly militarized. Rather, my civilian identity collapsed in the face of militarized younger men’s
These soldiers resented the constraints placed upon them, but they also loved the attention and power
they got while in uniform; they loved their weapons, their camaraderie, and their robust bodies. It occurred
to me later that these soldiers simultaneously loathe and derive pleasure from their subordination – like
many in hierarchical relationships (cf. Benjamin 1988). The rituals of rank, uniforms, regimented life,
privileged sexual and social status, a feeling of superiority to civilians – all of these could be seen as
analogous to a quasi-consensual 24/7 BDSM relationship with the state. I decided two things at that
moment: The first is that I need to do more martial arts training so I never feel as weak again. The second
is that I need to understand more about how members of the armed forces derive pleasure while making
themselves available as instruments of state power.
Why a queer theory of militarization needs kink’s insights
Michel Foucault’s work is pivotal to several projects in contemporary security and military studies, from
post-structural discourse analysis methodology (Buzan and Hansen 2009, 212–20) to recent debates
about biopolitics as a useful framework for neoliberal warfare and security (Salter 2006; Kiersey 2009;
Evans 2010). While it is beyond this essay’s scope to address the shortcomings of using Foucauldian
categories like governmentality and biopolitics without ‘technologies of the self’ (Edkins1999, 41–2), I
want to advocate including ‘pleasure’ explicitly in the Foucauldian power/knowledge analytical framework.
Foucault’s (2001) discussions of sexuality have been less popular in International Relations than his
recently published lectures on biopower and security. Too few have taken up the challenge of grappling
with pleasures and desires that circulate in human relationships, even those constituted by cruelty and
domination. As Foucault explained,
What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh
on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms
knowledge, produces discourse. (1980, 119, emphasis mine)
This insight, broadly compatible with Marxist and Gramscian analyses of hegemony, means we must
analyse how power relations are productive and enjoyable, not merely oppressive.
In queer political theory, the experiences and struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT),
and other sexual and gender non-conformists are taken as analytically central. This may be intuitive when
studying the politics of LGBT movements and their legal and rhetorical strategies for achieving social
change. But just as feminism has created critical spaces for interrogating gender that go beyond the
‘where are the women’ question (Zalewski and Parpart 1998), queer theory generates insights into fields
of power relations beyond the immediate lives of queer people (Weber 2015).
Instead of imagining queer activism as ‘healing’8 homophobic society, Foucault described the potential for
queer communities to invent new social relations:
what we said at one time, ‘Let’s try to re-introduce homosexuality into the general norm of social
relations’, let’s say the reverse – ‘No! Let’s escape as much as possible from the type of relations that
society proposes for us and try to create in the empty space where we are new relational possibilities’.
In several ways, this resonates today. The politics of queer marriage, the militarization of gay and lesbian
bodies in the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ debates, and queer media presence, have brought acceptance of
monogamous queer couples, creating the possibility of a ‘homonationalist’ politics of inclusion and
exclusion (Puar 2007). Creating acceptable spaces for queer absorption into modern western capitalist
societies minimizes the potentially destabilizing and radical cultural contributions of sexual minorities.
If heterosexist cis-gendered social norms do not have room for the complexities of queer lives,
relationships, and desires, the creation of new spaces and ways of living at the margins becomes
essential. Indeed, Foucault hypothesized that:
[gay] culture in the large sense, [is] a culture that invents ways of relating, types of existence,
types of values, types of exchanges between individuals which are really new and are neither the
same as, nor superimposed on, existing cultural forms. If that’s possible, then gay culture will be
not only a choice of homosexuals for homosexuals – it would create relations that are, at certain
points, transferable to heterosexuals. (1997, 159–60)
In rejecting traditional and legal patriarchal institutions, the queer community can explore new modes of
One area where ‘straight’ culture is adopting practices once confined to queer ghettos is kink. In a 1984
interview, Foucault argued that S/M9 had potentially revolutionary implications for relationships, identities,
and people’s experience of pleasure.10 He said,
I don’t think that this movement of sexual practices has anything to do with the disclosure or the
uncovering of S/M tendencies deep within our subconscious, and so on. [… Rather] it’s the
creation of new possibilities of pleasure, which people had no idea about previously. (Foucault,
Gallagher, and Wilson 1984, 28)
After arguing that BDSM play was a way of desexualizing pleasure, creating new kinds of friendships,
Foucault was asked what it might teach us about the power. He replied:
One can say that S/M is the eroticization of power, the eroticization of strategic relations. What strikes me
with regard to S/M is how it differs from social power. What characterizes power is the fact that it is a
strategic relation that has been stabilized through institutions. […] On this point, the S/M game is very
interesting because it is a strategic relation but it is always fluid. Of course, there are roles, but everybody
knows very well that these roles can be reversed. (Foucault, Gallagher, and Wilson 1984, 29)
Here, Foucault makes explicit use of queer kink experience as an ideal type to interpret institutionalized
power relations and their various non-consensual modes of domination. His argument inverts the
normative view of sexual minorities according to ancient patriarchal codes or contemporary scientific
ideas of ‘normality’.
Since Foucault expressed curiosity about what radical queer and BDSM communities might have to teach
others, these communities have faced the spread of sexually transmitted disease, taken advantage of the
internet, and developed a substantial literature (Rubin 1998). Outside of the accepted boundaries of
institutionalized power strategies, they experiment with new forms of relationships guided by a particular
set of norms. As Foucault indicated, it is precisely because kink makes power dynamics explicit,
negotiated, and erotic that it creates such a useful lens through which to view other social relations.
Assuming the experience of kinky and queer communities as normal, with monogamy, power-roles,
expectations, and testing statuses negotiated explicitly, the rest of the binary-gendered patriarchal society
takes on new meanings. Bringing a kink sensibility to interpreting interactions, power exchange rituals,
and subjection might help clarify some points Foucault’s work left wanting. As Butler notes, subjection
‘(assujettissement) has two meanings, to subordinate someone to power and to become a subject, it
presupposes the subject in its first meaning and induces the subject in its second’ (2004, 189). The
paradoxical nature of the word in French has left some confusion in what Foucault meant. Rather than
further exegesis, I recommend looking at practice for insight into the co-constitution of power dynamics
and subjects in embodied interactions. In the next section, I develop these ideas further through the
reflections of a feminist BSDM practitioner.
Towards a kinkier theory of power and consent
Following Foucault and others, BDSM practice presents a vivid and embodied alternative to traditional
power dynamics. Drawing on Fowles, a feminist submissive, I want to highlight three concepts from
BDSM practice that point towards an ideal type of negotiated kinky power relations: (1) enthusiastic
consent, (2) safe words, and (3) critical reflexivity. Explaining why she enthusiastically surrenders in
power exchange, Fowles argues (2008, 120),
a submissive participates in power exchange because a safe psychological space is offered up to
do so in. That space creates an opportunity for a display of endurance, a relief from responsibility,
and feelings of affection and security. Before any ‘scene’ begins, the rules are made clear and the
limitations agreed upon.
Surrender is experienced as a relief of responsibility and a chance to demonstrate strength and
endurance. The second concerns consent as an active process. This means that kinky relationships tend
to begin with much more explicit negotiation than traditional heterosexual courtship does (Bussel 2008).
Indeed, negotiations are sometimes written and are always explicit to cultivate enthusiastic ongoing
consent from play partners.
The practice of BDSM communities differs from binding, institutionalized contracts, because capacity to
terminate the relationship or activity remains with the individual even after agreeing to surrender, submit,
or serve. Safe words constitute an immediate, uncomplicated ‘veto’ power to slow, pause, or stop
whatever is happening. They represent a practice that makes even very risky or politically incorrect
fantasy roles consensual. Saying the safe word,
on the part of either party, the act can and will end. Ignoring the safe word is a clear act of
violation that is not up for any debate. Because of this, BDSM sex, even with all its violent
connotations, can be much ‘safer’ than non-safe word sex. (Fowles 2008, 120)
Agreeing to be restrained leaves one physically vulnerable and unable to resist, but uttering a single word
or gesture should bring the entire encounter to an immediate halt. As a practice that produces agency
even within surrender, safe words are part of the power relation as much as ongoing enthusiastic consent
Finally, like any other area of sexuality in contemporary consumer culture, BDSM has been appropriated
in ways that are troubling. Fowles notes: ‘When those desires specific to BDSM are appropriated,
watered down and corrupted, the complex rules that the counterculture is founded on are completely
disposed of’ (2008, 121). Indeed, rape culture has borrowed fashion and torture fetish gear from BDSM
without revealing the entirety of its practices, contributing to the idea that women are naturally submissive
and want to be aggressively controlled. Because mainstream pornography eroticizes torture scenes
without the process of negotiation and communicating, there is always a danger that misogynist desires
can appropriate some women’s consent.12 Fowles argues:
When the mainstream appropriation of BDSM models is successfully critiqued, dismantled, and
corrected, a woman can then feel safe to desire to be demeaned, bound, gagged, and ‘forced’
into sex by her lover. In turn, feminists would feel safe accepting that desire, because it would be
clear consensual submission. Because ‘she was asking for it’ would finally be true. (2008, 125)
Many in the BDSM community see the radical critique of outside appropriation as essential to healthy
BDSM communities, while Fowles makes a stronger, feminist point: as long as a pervasive rape culture
frames our understandings of sexuality, women’s kinkiest desires are politically contentious (Rubin 2003).
While not a Habermasian ideal speech situation, the carefully negotiated BDSM relationship can function
as an ideal type, including negotiation, enthusiastic consent, and safe words, all with a relentless critique
of appropriation by hegemonic narratives and institutions. In comparison, ‘normal’ heterosexual romance,
with a lack of communication and boundary setting, can be seen as part of rape culture.
Militarization through kinky spectacles
The connection between the military and perverse and kinky modes of sexuality is complicated. Rape,
torture, sexual abuse, prostitution, and rampant sexual harassment are all realities in militarized
institutions, and closely correlated with large military deployments and bases. This has been understood
for years, and studies of war rape have demonstrated that there is great complexity in both the problem
and its solutions (Hansen 2000; Kirby 2012). Melanie Richer-Monpetit’s (2007, 2014) analysis of the
sexual violence at Abu Ghraib, much of which looks like BDSM without any of its ethical practices, goes
even further into the complicated mix of desire and dehumanization that war can unleash. While scholars
have persuasively established links between militarization, hyper-masculine identities, and sexual assault,
I now want to trouble the soldier as an object of desire, not merely as a subject imposing violence.
The problem with understanding sexual desire in the context of militarization is that there is no simple
one-way transfer from state power into the bodies and pleasures of people. Indirect and overlapping
factors combine to shape desires in militaries, their members, and the broader societies they are
connected to. As Foucault described so clearly, power, knowledge, and desire are not separate or
dialectically linked opposites but are all the effects of particular relations between people and techniques.
One place to begin thinking about kink and militarization is in the explicit fetishization of uniforms and
bodies (Schneider1997). In kink-influenced fashion, dressing in the uniforms of authorities is common,
from the priesthood to the military (Steele 2001). Beyond exclusive fetish scenes, militarized clothing has
become part of mainstream fashion, including everything from khaki pants (Enloe 1983) to contemporary
camouflage colour patterns. In fetish communities, many choose to adopt militarized uniforms as a way of
demonstrating their dominance. Indeed, in ‘crossover kink porn’ (which targets mainstream audiences
with BDSM themes), the male dominants are almost always dressed in quasi-military uniforms. Given the
fairly recent increase in representations of sexualized male bodies outside of gay circles (Bordo 1999),
this is indicative that heterosexual men seem to identify feeling ‘sexy’ with wearing a soldier, police, or
paramilitary uniform. In kink communities, militarized or wealth-indicating dress is the primary strategy for
hetero male dominants to appear attractive. Contrast this with sexualized images of heterosexual females
where clothing is minimal and often objectifying, and US culture’s emphasis on women’s looks and men’s
status becomes obvious (Crane and Crane-Seeber 2003).
Within military communities, there is not necessarily a great deal of explicit kink or BDSM practice, which
is unsurprising given the overall demographics. Kink communities tend to be politically progressive, white,
graduate-educated, and middle class, whereas mainstream US military culture is politically and religiously
conservative, while class, race, and educational backgrounds are more diverse. That said, the military
was an incubator for two communities that contributed to the modern kink scene. The first is the ‘leather
daddy’ scene which grew up among post-WWII gay veterans’ biker groups. ‘Upon their return to the
States about 1946, many of the gay vets wanted to retain the most satisfying elements of their military
experience and, at the same time, hang out socially and sexually with other masculine gay men’.13 These
clubs produced some of the aesthetics (black leather chaps, military caps, heavy impact play, floggers,
etc.) as well as the emphasis on discipline, protocol, and obedience that helped define the BDSM scene
well into the era when Foucault encountered it and Rubin studied it (1998).
The second ‘scene’ that developed out of US military communities was ‘swinging’. Swinging is not
normally considered part of BDSM or kink by practitioners, because swingers are rarely egalitarian or
explicit about cultivating enthusiastic consent. Swingers often have strict homophobic rules (prohibiting
male-to-male contact), focusing on heterosexual male enjoyment and voyeurism. Swinging parties began
around US air bases during WWII, when pilots organized ‘wife swapping’ parties (Gould 2000). Air crews
suffered incredibly high casualty rates, so the semi-ritualized sexual engagements make sense in terms
of both ‘living in the moment’ and an implied mutual promise to look after widows and children. Even after
the war ended, the tradition continued with flight crews and has since spread well beyond the armed
services. Over time, the swinger scene has intersected and overlapped with kink communities. The
military origins of both leather and swinger groups make sense: twentieth-century militaries mobilized
massive numbers of people, uprooted them from home, and forged new identities (Barkawi 2006). Among
queer men, military service was often the first homosocial experience of their lives (Belkin2012), while
‘artificial’ communities produced new norms and new identities, including heterosexual swingers.
For veterans’ biker groups who developed leather culture, an emphasis on seniority and hierarchy meant
that to become a ‘master’ required a period of submission, of proving that one was patient, skilled, and
committed to the lifestyle. In the punishments, initiation rituals, dress, and ranks, the leather scene
echoed military discipline. This provided continuity for veterans and a masculine community for ‘butch’
queer men. Unlike military service, however, it is possible to leave the community, or to refuse a play
partner, and there is no killing. Out of these communities’ experiences, the norms of ‘safe, sane, and
consensual’ evolved to minimize abuse (Weiss 2011). Being intentional about playing in a way that
satisfies all participants is intended to reduce incidents of abuse; hence ‘enthusiastic consent’ has
emerged as the most recent norm in addition to safe words. This is precisely why the kink community is
often uncomfortable with Fifty Shades (James, 2012) and other popular representations of the lifestyle,
which blur abuse and consensual power play (Barker 2013).
One must establish a clear distinction between submission as an active process and institutionalized
helplessness. Both involve domination, punishment, and subjection to the will of another, all in very
embodied ways. Enthusiastic submission produces a subject, an acting, agentic being who works to
become strong enough to bear the pain and enjoy the pleasures of surrender to a cause, person, or
relationship. Helplessness, in my sense, refers to Goffman’s ‘total institutions’ which can produce, at their
most extreme, Agamben’s ‘bare life’ (1998). Such relations produce objects, an embodied person to be
studied, used, kept alive, or sacrificed, depending on how their subjectivity is constituted.
To make sense of militarization, we need both concepts: submission and helplessness. Certainly, the
experience of basic training is one of profound subjection, fashioning a new body, a new set of practices,
and a fundamentally new self (Rose1999, 15–54). The subject produced is not, however, ‘bare life’,
despite Shatan’s characterization of it:
He becomes a member of a new society that has complete control over his movements, his
behavior, and the physical and social conditions of his life. This absence of choice puts him in a
position of relative powerlessness, susceptible to an assault at the roots of his civilized existence.
He is forced to function in ways alien to any he would freely select. Freedom of choice is
banished to the world of daydreams and recreation, while order, authority, and threat occupy the
center of the stage. (Shatan 1977, 597)
Within the hierarchical structure of military life, power and authority often seem crystal clear. Unlike the
civilian world where choice and liberty define many masculine identities, status in the military is earned for
being compliant, skilled, and pro-actively obedient. Of course, within armed forces, a myriad of other
factors and forces operate that undermine or transform those power relations.
Upon graduation from the total institution of basic training, troops are taught to take enormous pride in
their new bodies, stripped of excess, and their new sense of self. From uniforms to finely toned muscles
to posture, the military works to produce a new body with a new identity. The broader culture reinforces
these messages, treating soldiers as embodiments of confidence, and their muscles, weapons, and
uniforms as sexy. The transformed citizen, submissive to the state, is rewarded with the sex appeal that
only massive symbolic power can bestow. From loving ‘a man in uniform’ to ‘weapons porn’
(Baudrillard 2006), militarization and sexuality are mutually implicated.
As described by Fowles above, submission involves a certain pleasure and pride in enduring the torments
and meeting the expectations of masters, recalling Belkin’s analysis of being ‘man enough’ to ‘take’ anal
sex (2012). Kinky submissives experience this as discipline, mastering of weakness. This echoes the
‘pain is weakness leaving the body’ ethos of military training, so one might hypothesize that pleasures
ensue from the self-mastery that comes with submission. The strength and will to endure suffering, the
sense of being desired, and the pride in doing what few others can do are similar. While lacking the ideal
type of mutual enthusiastic consent to power relations (and their reversibility), military life still brings many
of the same modes and pleasures of submission as kink.
War as initiation
Junger, a celebrated filmmaker who was embedded with US forces in Afghanistan, recently told an
interviewer, ‘I think the right wing tends to idolize soldiers – you can’t talk about them critically in any way
[while the] left wing went from vilifying them in Vietnam to seeing them as victims of a military-industrial
complex. […But t]hey’re very proud that they are soldiers’ (Gault and Junger 2015, emphasis added). By
recognizing the choice of taking on the challenges of military service, and not looking for structural
causes, the militarization of a person’s body might be treated as a complex of power, discipline, and
pleasure. Social reinforcement, widespread sexualization of uniformed bodies, and the perverse
association between violent power and desirability all come together here. Understanding militarization
without these pleasures risks assuming that soldiers are either dupes or dangerous and sadistic
aggressors. A more complicated picture is possible through a focus on the sorts of pleasures associated
Finding the inner strength to endure training, reshape the body, and submit to the state, many troops take
enormous pride in what they do. But militarization is not simply a process of training and following rules;
indeed, it is explicitly about war making. Understanding what makes war compelling is a multifaceted task,
and few have done as good a job as philosopher J. Glenn Gray. Reflecting on service in WWII, he
described the appeal of battle as emotional, aesthetic, and very embodied. He quotes a French civilian
friend, after the war:
Anything is better than to have nothing at all happen day after day. You know that I do not love
war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.
(Gray 1959, 216–7)
Indeed, war is often described as focusing the mind, quickening the senses, a ‘high’ that can never be
matched. It is war’s promise of adventure and excitement that brings movies, video games, and military
recruitment strategies into common cause. In the heroism, terror, and directly embodied nature of
organized violence, war offers full access to the senses (Dyvik2016).
In the mythologies of contemporary US culture, war is seen as a test of character, a chance to test one’s
endurance, skill, and strength. Junger argues that socially opaque definitions of manhood lead young
men to seek such tests: ‘I think there’s a lot of cultural reinforcement […] You know, you’re not a man until
you’ve done something really difficult? And war is very difficult’ (Gault and Junger 2015). Insecure
masculinity in US culture encourages many men to test themselves through state-sanctioned violence. By
going to war, they link their identities to powerful social institutions and symbolic orders, remake their
bodies, and learn whether they are really ‘man enough’ to engage in warfare.
Actual war is reportedly both boring and terrifying. While it may provide a level of compelling excitement
unmatched elsewhere in life, it is also not the initiation ritual many long for. Returning from war is a
complicated and psychologically fraught process, one that strongly correlates with a variety of
relationship, drug, and health problems. As Brendan O’Byrne, one of the soldiers who appeared
in Restrepo and Korengal, insisted on his own culpability:
For a while there, I felt like god hates me. […] I’ve sinned, you know? You do terrible things and
then you have to live with them afterwards. But you’d do them the same way if you had to go
back. […] Everyone tells you ‘you did an honorable thing, you did alright, you’re alright, you did
what you had to do’. I just hate that comment. ‘You did what you have to do’, cuz I didn’t have to
do any of it. […] That’s the hardest thing to deal with. I didn’t have to do shit. I didn’t have to go in
the army, I didn’t have to become Airborne Infantry, I didn’t have to do any of it. But I did, you
know. And that comment ‘You did what you have to do’, just drives me insane. Cuz is that what
god’s gonna say, ‘you did what you had to do, good job, welcome to heaven’? I don’t think so.14
Insisting on the victimhood or hero status of soldiers (Scranton 2015) also robs them of their moral
personhood. It is precisely their desire, hard work, and sacrifice that make them available to the state.
Young men may choose to go to war to find themselves or prove their manhood, but all too often, they
return more confused and broken than when they left. The highly romanticized rite of passage into
powerful, sexy warriors is not permanent. As Gray stated about his own wartime service,
Most sobering of all to me is the realization my experience has forced upon me that suffering has very
limited power to purge and purify; with the vast majority, it is as likely to deteriorate the character and will,
or, at best, to leave no lasting mark for good or ill. (1959, 218)
Conscience haunts, addictions beckon, and life as a civilian is not as easy as it seemed. Military service
might be seen as a route to a secure and lasting sense of manhood, but focusing merely on the lack,
rather than the ways that militarization can ‘induce pleasures’, misses troops’ active submission to the
military. The process that transforms civilian bodies into weapons is not a mere imposition, it is a
choice15 that carries profound and lasting costs, as well as numerous and complicated pleasures.
Taking Foucault and other theorists interested in kink seriously means extending feminist and queer
analysis to dynamics of pleasure and play that are not remotely politically correct. Indeed, at the heart of
the matter are the ways that people participate in, and enjoy, aspects of their own subjection
(Benjamin 1988). This approach helps focus analysis on people’s relationships with their bodies, with
others, and with authority. Applying this framework to military personnel, I see an implicit deal vis-à-vis the
meaning of militarized masculine bodies and sexual desire. Submission to the state involves a wide
variety of overlapping humiliations and pleasures. Troops trade surveillance and lost autonomy for high-
powered weaponry, boarding flights early, applause at football games, and, as I’ve argued, a powerful
sexualized social identity. In researching the pleasures of subjection to the state, I am fascinated by how
our culture objectifies and fetishizes the militarized male body in ways that are normally reserved only for
women’s bodies. As in leather S/M communities, submission yields a unique status, one that
paradoxically creates a sense of personal power and triumph. In the toughness and endurance required
to submit, mastery is demonstrated.
An important question that remains unanswered here is whether the appropriation of militarized identities,
uniforms, and practices by radical kink communities undermines or reinforces the cultural hold of
militarization. A number of authors have warned about the linkage between queer struggles and
militarized citizenship, but I would argue (with Foucault) that one of the radical possibilities of kink is
taking strategic relationships of domination and converting them into fully negotiated, consensual forms of
play. In such play, fantasies like slavery, rape, ‘1950s housewives’, and torture are re-appropriated in
ways that generate pleasure, and perhaps even healing (Call 2011).
Actual torture, rape, slavery, and the like involve the objectification of human beings and the suspension
of reciprocity or intersubjectively shared experience (Benjamin 1988). Kink, on the other hand,
emphasizes enthusiastic consent, uses the mechanism of ‘safewording’ to ensure agency, and is meant
to bring people together for mutual benefit. Thinking about power, pleasure, and pain also highlights
important ethical distinctions between active submission and forced, non-consensual power dynamics. It
opens the complicated psycho-sexual politics of surrender, domination, and attraction to analysis and
helps explain the sexiness of uniforms that symbolize power and control.
Given the perverse appropriation of militarization, the linkage between submission to the state and
sexualized and violent masculinities can be better understood when questions about why war is sexy are
taken more seriously. Like war games and physical sports that mimic state violence, perhaps kink creates
spaces for taking the symbolism of state power and using it for pleasure. While this might reinforce the
link between domination, militarization, and sexuality, it might also create spaces for a radical re-
appropriation of these symbols and identities outside of war-making projects.
Catherine Baker, Synne Dyvik, Lauren Greenwood, Naeem Inayatullah, Stephanie Vogel, and Julia
Welland each offered generous and insightful critiques, as did three anonymous reviewers.
1. Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program where future US military officers attend civilian universities,
participating in regular drills and often attending classes in uniform.
2. Despite Scarry’s (1985) path-breaking work, political science seems to struggle to acknowledge the
realities of bodies at war (Sylvester 2013, 66–7; Wilcox 2015).
3. See the interesting and overlapping meanings in the etyomology of the word ‘fetish,’
4. I use the term kink as the umbrella term in the context of bondage and discipline, dominance and
submission, and sado-masochism (BDSM) and associated fetish and role-play communities. ‘Kink’
includes BDSM, but BDSM does not necessarily include all kinky activities. See Weiss (2011) and Queen
5. Field notes are an iterative qualitative data-generation technique using the researcher’s own
phenomenological experiences, observations, and interactions as primary data. Emerson’s account is a
fantastic and simple guide (1995). For more on ethnographic methods and International Relations, see
6. I’ve described this moment and what I think it means methodologically elsewhere (Crane-
7. My thinking on this subject derives from Nandy’s (1984).
8. In Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, the slave necessarily understands the master better than the master
understands himself. What Hegel didn’t imagine was that those relationships could be healed to create
intersubjective equality (Benjamin 1988). Similarly, the rebellion of the oppressed as conceptualized by
Gandhi (Gandhi and Merton 1965) sought to heal oppressors from the self-inflicted wounds that
oppression of others required. It follows that oppressed and marginalized communities have important
analytical and ethical perspectives on social order, since the powerful need not understand the entirety of
the systems they are a part of.
9. Sado-masochism, the term in wide use in the 1980s, which has now been largely absorbed into the
10. ‘The S/M ghetto in San Francisco is a good example of a community that has experimented with, and
formed an identity around, pleasure’ (Foucault, Gallagher, and Wilson 1984, 28).
11. Another key norm in BDSM ethics, aftercare, means a commitment to the well-being of play partners
after a scene ends. That means communicating and supporting physical or emotional discomfort, and
thereby ensures some responsibility to the other. For space reasons, I do not explore that here, despite
12. Recent accusations of sexual assault against kink pornography model James Deen remind us that
safe words can be ignored. The kink community’s reaction indicates what a serious violation of norms this
represents. On these allegations and consent in the porn industry,
13. ‘Incidentally, during the war, the soldiers would often put on skits for their own amusement. Since
women were not allowed at the front, some of the men would play the parts of women by doing a kind of
mock dress-up (as in one scene from ‘South Pacific’). Later, this tradition would be expressed in ‘drag’
shows during bike runs. So, masculine men pretended to be women – not truly ‘drag’ at all’. Note how this
interview reinforces an unproblematic gender binary while reflecting on the history of S/M
14. The interview appears in Korengal (Junger and Hetherington 2014).
15. While not all choices are equal, and the poverty and deindustrialization of many US communities
creates strong structural conditions that shape choices, I nonetheless want to insist that scholars of
militarization recognize troops’ own hard work to fashion themselves into warriors.
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