Reframing Exclusionary Identities Through Affective Affinities: A comparative study of BDSM community formation in Budapest and London

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.


In this comparative thesis, I investigate how BDSM communities in Budapest and London form around affective affinities that do not rely on the exclusionary mechanisms of identity politics. I strive for an open, ambiguous definition of kink to support my framing of BDSM as an affective praxis not contingent on normative identities. My analysis is based on 20 semi-structured interviews and a literature review drawing from sexological, psychoanalytic, gender studies, and ethnographic fields, which chronicles the historical and contemporary social construction of BDSM. Situating myself and my research locations, I discuss what it means to utilize a feminist, embodied, interdisciplinary praxis in my fieldwork. I describe my participant observation and interview methodologies, and detail the pros and cons of mobilizing the term “community” in my research. Illustrating the problem with using identity as a tool for community formation, I explore how identity creates normativities and develop the idea of kinknormativity, unique from other normativities in linking the legitimacy of informed consent to social privilege. Moving away from identity, I argue that affect provides the necessary opening for BDSM communities to form, analyzing two main affective modes: feelings of belonging and discussions of gender. I show that affective belonging is built in both locations through solidarity and educational events, which are more frequent in London than in Budapest. Perhaps in part due to differing educational resources, knowledge of gender varies greatly between my fieldwork sites, expressed with more fluency and reflexivity in London through notions of performativity and in a more parochial manner in Budapest through temporal references to the 1800s. My research contributes to continuing efforts to bring BDSM into the academy, moving away from debates around de/pathologizing kink while contributing to interdisciplinary scholarship on sexual cultures, affect, and gender.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

... While some rope bondage practitioners utilize identitarian vocabulary to define their orientations toward their rope practices or themselves as BDSM practitioners, others do not. Rather than engaging with the exclusionary mechanisms of identity and identity politics, some practitioners form communities of affinity shared through affect (Pennington, 2018), a prepersonal corporeal intensity passed between affected and affecting bodies (Massumi, 1987, xvi), delineating degrees of transfer "embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin -at the surface of the body, at its interface with things" (Massumi, 1995, 85). It is no coincidence that Massumi's formative definition of affect is to be found in his introduction to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, the same work which spells out the efficacy of the rhizome in replacing vertical, "arborescent" 12 hierarchies with omnidirectional, interrelated agglomerations (1987, 7). ...
... Apart from time, rope bondage's affective "bubble" has the potential to restructure divisive identitarian relations into connective affinities (Pennington, 2018). Some ways of knowing center Cartesian-style dualisms, organizing epistemologies around socially constructed binaries such as sex and gender (Lorber, 1993, 569) who build identities around such calcifications. ...
... The material, corporeal connections rope makes-both through generating foci of intensity on practitioners' skin (Massumi, 1995) and through the lines of flight it creates in space-indicate rhizomatic, affective affinities (Pennington, 2018) between practitioners. These networks of relation also help extricate rope bondage from hierarchical, arborescent modes of analysis supporting calcified understandings of time and identity. ...
Full-text available
Rope bondage, also known as shibari or kinbaku, is an embodied practice commonly associated with BDSM (an acronym for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) in both academic and non-academic environments. However, BDSM and sex-oriented discourses are not inherent in the practice. Rather, they are only two potential ways of framing rope bondage, the appropriateness of which depends on how practitioners choose to envision themselves and their practices. As feminist and queer theory has argued, identity as a fixed social construct frequently serves normative, regulatory aims (Butler, 1990, 1993; Sedgwick, 1990). Drawing upon the authors’ fieldwork, this article argues that rope bondage functions via affective relations, which enable practitioners to think of themselves outside of identitarian structures of connection, if they so choose. Rather than engaging with the problematics of identity politics, members can share affective sensations felt through embodied experience, directed both toward rope and toward other bodies. Furthermore, practitioners’ affective perceptions of time are altered by their corporeal experiences of rope bondage, which often bring about a flow state (Ambler et al., 2017; Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Newmahr, 2011). The affective practice of rope bondage and practitioners’ multiple, self-reflexive corporealities while interacting with and through the medium of rope prompt the authors toward a rhizomatic model of analysis (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Massumi, 1987). Such a model works against hierarchies of time and identity, which are broken down through affective exchanges. A rhizomatic understanding of the growth patterns of rope bondage can also inform future scholarship on non-canonical changes occurring in the practice without necessitating that those changes be linked to the ostensible origins of rope bondage in feudal Japan, origins constructed chronologically to validate the practice’s existence. Keywords: affect theory; embodiment; kinbaku; rhizome; rope bondage; shibari.
... Research, almost solely conducted by graduate students, has begun to establish and explore rope bondage as a specific subculture and practice within a wider umbrella of BDSM. This work covers various countries including Germany (Martin, 2011;Ordean & Pennington, 2019), Singapore (Sheela, 2008), Paris and London (Ordean & Pennington, 2019;Pennington, 2018), the United Kingdom (Galati, 2017), and Budapest (Pennington, 2018). ...
... Research, almost solely conducted by graduate students, has begun to establish and explore rope bondage as a specific subculture and practice within a wider umbrella of BDSM. This work covers various countries including Germany (Martin, 2011;Ordean & Pennington, 2019), Singapore (Sheela, 2008), Paris and London (Ordean & Pennington, 2019;Pennington, 2018), the United Kingdom (Galati, 2017), and Budapest (Pennington, 2018). ...
Full-text available
Rope bondage subculture is a social world positioned underneath the broader umbrella of pansexual BDSM subculture. It is characterized by its own norms, spaces, words, practices, art, career opportunities, events, identities, and more. The status of rope as a sub-subculture spread across and between locations renders it mostly invisible to outsiders. As such, although there are a few studies on rope bondage, its discrete social world has rarely been recognized in academic research, and never as the primary focus. Through my insider status I investigate the shape of the rope bondage world and the experiences of some of the people within it. I draw on 23 qualitative interviews with people who practice rope bondage in Canada and the United States to investigate peoples’ experiences of rope bondage practice and subculture. My analysis is supported by a theoretical foundation informed by symbolic interactionism, feminism, critical disability studies, and critical race theory. I explore the theoretical and methodological intricacies of conducting qualitative research on rope bondage from the inside, while prioritizing and theorizing ethical participant-centered methods informed by select kinky etiquette and practices. My findings suggest that rope bondage subculture is characterized by almost indescribable experiences of pleasure, belonging, and joy, along with experiences of conflict and discrimination at personal and structural levels. It is both a vibrant social world and a subculture informed by (and reflective of) the racism, ableism, sexism, homo/transphobia, and classism that plague wider society. The accounts of disabled and racialized rope bondage practitioners are crucial to understanding both oppression and resistance in this world. I build upon Weiss’ (2006) concept of unintelligibility to argue that kinky pleasure that is not strictly, normatively sexual appears to be unintelligible to most BDSM researchers. Further, in some respects, kinky pleasure is unintelligible—or at least ineffable—to some of the practitioners themselves. My findings show that understanding the texture of rope bondage’s pleasure requires listening to how rope bondage practitioners theorize their own desires, pleasures, and lives. This work offers theoretical, conceptual, and practical tools to understand rope bondage practitioners, complex sexualities, BDSM, and participant-centered research on deviantized demographics.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.