I’m in New York right now, so I spent part of yesterday (Saturday) at the Lesbian Sex Mafia party, then headed off to a TES event. (Ah, New York.) I met a lot of cool people, but the one whose words I’ll cite in this entry is named Liz. Liz is an older lesbian and top. I love talking to culturally aware people who lived through the feminist / sexual revolution — particularly if they’ve got a specific focus on alt sex communities, which Liz does.

She made a lot of great comments at dinner. My favorite, though, was when I started talking about BDSM-dar. You’ve probably heard the term gaydar, “the intuitive ability to assess another individual’s sexuality”. BDSM-dar is a similar concept, but obviously for BDSM rather than homosexuality.

I have some attachment to the concept of BDSM-dar. The reason is that I came into BDSM by means of a man who unexpectedly went after me at a party and hurt me — and though I was shocked and horrified, I also loved it. I went back to him and asked him to do it again. Multiple times. And I spent the next year flipping out as I faced up to the fact that I’m a sexual deviant. And once I was done flipping out, I felt far more whole and sexy and powerful than I ever had before.

Let’s call him Richard. And let me make it clear right now that I was never attacked, abused, or assaulted in any way. I could have asked Richard to stop, that first night, and I didn’t. It was difficult for me to come to terms with my BDSM desires, but I have no doubt that they are real and that they have been in me all along. In childhood, I did things like tie up my Barbie dolls and draw sadomasochistic comics; I only started repressing those feelings in adolescence. When Richard went after me, he did not create anything in me — he drew out what was already there, something I’d been pressing back for years.

Later, when I asked him how he knew, he smiled and said he could tell. That with me, it had been obvious. He called it SM-dar.

Now, there are some obvious reasons for why Richard might have been able to appear to sniff me out, and yet not actually sport any real special sense. The biggest: if he just asserts that lots of women are into BDSM, he’s bound to succeed some of the time, right? Maybe he doesn’t actually have SM-dar. Maybe he just discounts the cases where his “detection” doesn’t work, and plays up the ones where it does.

I don’t think so. I know Richard pretty well; I’ve seen him do a lot of interacting. Furthermore, I’ve actually seen him “detect” one or two other people with surprising accuracy. I say surprising, because initially I found the way he talked about SM-dar extremely irritating and presumptuous; so I was surprised when it worked with people besides myself.

But on the other hand, I don’t have BDSM-dar myself. And I have no proof, no studies or anything approaching real evidence that BDSM-dar exists.

I had one quotation that I thought was powerful evidence for the BDSM-dar concept. It’s from a 1953 book of psychological case studies called Sadism and Masochism: the Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty (buy it here — I’m talking about volume 2). The quotation comes from the story of a sadistic woman who came to Stekel for a cure. She tells how she’ll go out to spas and engage the attending men in pleasant, noncommital conversation. She’ll pick one man, and tell him to come to her room. When he gets there, she’ll whip him. Then she goes home and feels incredibly ashamed. Oh Doctor, please help!

Understandably, Stekel asks her how she can possibly identify these men; obviously she’s doing a pretty good job identifying them, since no one’s pressed charges for assault — but how? She answers: “Sadists and masochists have a secret language. I might say a secret alliance with secret customs and secret agreement.” I always figured that since this woman clearly wasn’t hooked in to an established community of any kind, she couldn’t be referring to a real “code”. I figured this was just her way of articulating her BDSM-dar.

Liz, however, told me a bit about how lesbians used to function in the absence of a lesbian community. She said that even without a “central authority”, they would develop little tricks for finding each other. For instance, lesbian-tinged books or movies, referenced slyly. She said that’s how she interprets Stekel’s sadist: not as “sensing” her bottoms through any aspect of their personalities or appearance, but as taking advantage of tiny cultural hints.

Liz also expressed irritation with the preponderance of male tops (particularly older ones) in the scene who will come up to women and say, “You’re a submissive. I can just” — :leer: — “tell.” I get the impression that she’s dealt with a lot of this, which must be particularly annoying as a top.

(Ironically enough — later that night, an older male top I’d briefly played with commented haughtily that a female top we’d spoken to earlier was “a submissive; I can tell.” I gently argued with him for a while on the subject. His stance was, “I’m not being sexist or patriarchal. I’ve got 20 years of experience in the scene, and I just think I’ve probably learned how to tell a top from a bottom.” My stance was, “Okay, maybe, but I really think you need to (a) not say these things in quite so presumptuous a fashion and (b) carefully examine your assumptions.” I wonder if I made an impression. I hope so; it pisses me off to think that I might’ve had a BDSM experience — no matter how casual — with an unrepentant sexist jerk. :grin: That’s the risk with people you don’t know too well, I guess. And maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Anyway, I digress.)

I considered trying to discuss my coming-into-BDSM experience with Liz, but I didn’t really get the chance. I wish I could have heard her thoughts.

So now I find myself back to square one. Did Richard sniff me out with BDSM-dar, or did he just get lucky? Is BDSM-dar mostly just a figment of our assumptions and biases?

If Stekel’s sadist wasn’t using BDSM-dar — if she was instead doing something more like what Liz described — I wish I had some idea what cultural references she might’ve used. Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps.