I was all set to dislike Daniel Bergner. As a member of the BDSM community and an advocate for greater societal acceptance of BDSM, I was unimpressed by the reviews of his new book, The Other Side of Desire. I get annoyed when I see media depictions that play into BDSM stereotypes or create other problems for the BDSM community image; it seemed to me that Bergner had written a book that did just that. At best, it sounded naïve — at worst, cynical and insensitive. I requested an interview with him, wondering whether we’d end up at each other’s throats … and then I read the book.
The Other Side of Desire is far more complex than I initially gave it credit for. There’s too much silence around alternative sexuality, and it breaks that silence — not by promoting an agenda, but with a plea for personal understanding. I found myself believing that Daniel Bergner really had done his best — not to put us deviants on display like animals in a zoo, but to give profiles of human beings thinking about human concerns. Still, there were gaps in the book that I found very troubling, and I wanted to see if he could defend them.
I arranged to meet Daniel at the Leather Archives and Museum, a museum devoted to leather / fetish / BDSM on Chicago’s north side. There, I found him looking over the Archives’ BDSM history timeline. As he greeted me, I was impressed by his measured speech and unexpectedly dark eyes. There was an openness to him — even, perhaps, a vulnerability — that didn’t come across in photographs. I could see how he’d gotten so many people to open up about their sexuality, and I warmed to him instantly.
The most obvious question to start with was what fetishes Daniel has, personally. But he’d already told other interviewers that he’s totally vanilla …
Daniel Bergner: (laughs) Did I say totally vanilla? I think I’ve — I think vanilla-ish, let’s go with that.
Clarisse Thorn: There was a part of your book’s Introduction that made some kinky readers wince a little bit. It’s at the beginning, where you compare your coverage of sexual fetishists to your previous journalistic experiences … one experience was interviewing convicted prisoners on death row, and another was covering war in Sierra Leone. Do you think it’s problematic that you compared alternative sexuality to a war zone in a foreign country?
DB: Now, I think that comparison was misunderstood. I do not see the erotically unusual as comparable to criminality or to utterly damaging violence, like in a war zone. What I was trying to say was that in each of those previous books I’ve gone to a very extreme place in order to learn about things that are universal.
Here, with sexuality — again, not comparing criminality to alternative sexuality — but I was comparing journeys of looking at lives that might fall outside “the norm”, and I’m putting quotes around “norm” because I think that whole concept of normal is suspect. Looking at lives lived outside the typical boundaries might help me, might help readers understand more about the lives we live sexually, how we come to be who we are sexually, and what we do with our sexuality.
CT: I’m interested to know what you knew about alternative sexuality before you started this book. What did you think of alternative sexuality? What stereotypes did you have? In particular, what kind of experience did you have with BDSM?
DB: I think I’ve come to all the writing I’ve done with a very open mind. Some people would say “too open”. It’s not just that I hesitate to judge. I think I’m missing the judgmental gene somehow.
I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t know nearly as much as I know now. I had no, or little, direct contact. It was new.
CT: You wrote on the blog for Powell’s Bookstore that you met fetishists for your book through “friends, therapists, and the Internet”. Can you shed some more light on that?
DB: I met the sadist I profiled — The Baroness — through a writer friend who very much admired The Baroness. Others I met through therapists who knew my writing and trusted me to be careful in my perspective. Ron, who’s the central figure in the last story —
CT: The amputee fetishist.
DB: — the amputee devotee, yes — I met him very indirectly through the Internet; I was having conversations with people in that community.
CT: In a comment on the blog “Sex in the Public Square” you said that you are “not, primarily, an advocate.” In other words, you didn’t see yourself as writing this book in order to advocate for alternative sexuality. Making alternative sexuality more acceptable was not a major goal for you. Is that right?
DB: I rely on and am indebted to advocates, because those who advocate for — in this case, sexual freedom, in other cases, for a more humanistic vision of convicts or what it means to live in a West African village — that kind of advocacy allows for what I do. I couldn’t do what I do without it, because it causes people to be open-minded and take an interest. What I do is try to tell complex stories about complex human beings in a way that makes us feel our humanity intensely, and deepens our humanity.
I think it’s very hard to create politically driven art. There are some examples of it that succeed, but I think often, people have to make a choice. I think it’s really difficult to do both.
CT: I guess those of us who are more concerned with advocacy just thought that it seems strange, even heartless, to write a book like this without making advocacy a goal. You must know that there’s a battle on — there are people out there, like the nonprofit National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, who are working really hard towards alternative sexuality acceptance.
So on the one side we have the NCSF. And then there are people on the other side who do nothing but tell us kinksters that we are sinful, or sick, or deluded, or otherwise screwed up. Anti-BDSM activists are not always religious evangelicals, either. They can come from surprisingly liberal circles. For instance — I identify strongly as a feminist, and there are lots of feminists out there who think that practicing BDSM and feminism are not irreconcilable — but there are also anti-BDSM feminists. Just recently I encountered a popular radical feminist blogger who outright stated that sadists should either repress their sadistic desires, or kill themselves.
We deal with this hostile environment all the time, and it’s hard for us to relate to someone who would write a book like yours and then say that he’s outside the conflict. Here’s an example that might illuminate what I’m saying. Suppose a foreigner came to the U.S. and wrote a book about four soldiers on the front in the Iraq War. And suppose his book was a huge hit in his country. Suppose that for lots of people in that foreigner’s home country, his book is the only exposure they have to the lives of Iraq War soldiers — that’s all they ever read about those stories. And then suppose that author said, afterwards, “I just wanted to write a book about these particular four soldiers, and their lives as soldiers. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about the Iraq War, and I didn’t mean to shape people’s perceptions of what being a soldier is like in general.”
What would you say to that author?
DB: That’s a great example, and it makes me feel bad.
CT: (laughs) Sorry!
DB: That’s fine; it’s your job to complicate things and ask difficult questions.
I have certainly read about the legal thinking that surrounds BDSM. Still — I hope this will not sound like too rarefied and irrelevant a thought — I have always been protective of the impulse to tell stories, to render people within nonfiction or journalism. So there’s a part of me that says: Wait. We don’t want all nonfiction, all journalism to become advocacy, because we’d lose something — we’d lose a depth of human investigation. We’d lose a depth that language itself can bring us. We’d lose a level of emotional resonance.
With the prison book, of course that book was in part an effort to have people see human beings that our society has rendered completely invisible, and to have our society see them as human beings. I think a lot of readers did in fact react that way. So when I would speak to groups about that, on the one hand I was protective and I said that I was telling stories about particular people, but that didn’t mean that underneath wasn’t an impulse to make people see in a way that starts to change their minds. Understand on an emotional level that makes them reconsider on an intellectual level.
You’re right: it would be ridiculously callous for me to say, “I just wanted to tell some stories, great, I’m done, goodbye.” Of course that’s not true. Of course I’m concerned with the boundaries that are placed on the erotic, and I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t feel that. That was an original impulse behind this book — feeling those boundaries in all kinds of forms, and questioning them. The entire book, in a way, is an attempt to chisel away at those constraints.
Let’s circle back to your radical feminist voice, who wrote that all sadists should either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. There’s an example of politics run amok. That writer is so engaged with her own political viewpoint — from her perspective, she probably sees BDSM as a threat to a feminist sense of independence. But by applying those politics to the realm of eros so extremely, she renders herself absurd. So there, again, I think your point sort of — if not proves mine, at least bolsters it a little bit. Eros is such a complex place, such a place for individual exploration. I almost want to clear politics out of it altogether. It’s difficult enough for us to be us as human beings when it comes to the erotic, without politics getting in there … once politics gets in there, I worry that we’re going to distort things even more.
In any case, I certainly get your point, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I don’t care about sexual freedom. I hope there is an undercurrent of tacit advocacy that runs throughout my book.
CT: How familiar would you say you are now with alternative sexual communities? With the BDSM community?
DB: I attended a lot of parties, only a few workshops. I talked to a lot of professional doms, and more people within the community who aren’t professionals … I talked to a lot of people I didn’t end up writing about. I like skinny books and my books always tend to be short. That involves a lot of chiseling out, paring down.
My sense of things as an outsider will be different from an insider’s sense. I can’t know these worlds as well as the people in them, I rely on those people to teach me. I’d love to have my book on a shelf paired with an insider’s vision — which would be equally idiosyncratic, of course.
I think implied in this question is a kind of desire for an all-encompassing vision, a representative vision of the BDSM community. But the stories that I’ve told are not intended to be fully representative of alternative sexuality. I just hope that my way of tunneling inward means something — it cannot, will never mean everything, and it needs other books next to it.
CT: Let’s talk specifically about the sadist you profiled — The Baroness. I have never encountered her myself and so I don’t feel that I can personally judge her, though I am set to interview her soon for my blog. Still, I have spoken to a number of people in the New York BDSM community who think that The Baroness is a very unsafe player who does not respect her partners. Friends have even warned me to stay completely away from her parties, though I think I’m going to try to attend one sometime anyway … they sound pretty intense.
To summarize: some people are upset that The Baroness was chosen as the BDSM person for your book. Do you think that your portrait of The Baroness is going to have an impact on popular perceptions of BDSM?
DB: I suppose, inevitably, it will.
CT: There was a reviewer for the New York Times Magazine who wrote that the story of The Baroness is the weakest story in your book, because The Baroness is “inherently unsympathetic”. The reviewer also said, “The Baroness, as her victims call her, denies any inner conflict. In her mind, she’s happy, and her victims are grateful”. How do you feel about that assessment?
DB: That review was otherwise really positive, so as an author, I’d be lying if I denied that I was pleased by the review. But I was surprised by that paragraph, particularly the word “victims”. Of course the people I portray with The Baroness are seeking her out —
CT: They’re actively seeking her out. They go to her shop specifically to find her, right?
DB: Yes …. Look, that reviewer clearly read the book carefully. But people are going to come to this book unsettled by all sorts of things. For her it was that. For someone else it will be Ron, the amputee devotee. For many people — and rightfully so — it will be Roy, who comes on to his 12-year-old stepdaughter. On this planet, I don’t think there’s one of us whose sexuality doesn’t upset somebody.
Here’s an example. I wrote that story in the “New York Times Magazine” about female desire. There was a huge response. A lot of it was really grateful, and that was gratifying, but there were people who were really upset —
CT: I read the letters to the editor.
DB: To me that shows that sex is a resonant, ever-vibrating realm. It stirs up so much emotion and so much response that’s not rational, and that’s fine — I mean, some of the response isn’t fine, but the fact that it stirs up so much just goes along with how powerful it is.
CT: I thought a lot of those letters were pretty rational, with very specific critiques. Did you feel like any of them nailed you?
DB: I will probably seek some of those authors out. If they’ll speak to me, I’d like to hear more of their thinking. I didn’t mean to say that they were irrational, but I guess what I mean is that sometimes when I hear the heat behind those voices, I think that there’s probably an unwillingness to see some aspects of sexuality.
CT: I really enjoyed reading those letters … I think that the letters and the article together form such a great conversation. I’m so happy to see these conversations happening.
Now, there’s a section of your book where you describe a conversation with one of The Baroness’s submissives. The Baroness sets up an interview for you with this guy where she straps him down to a table and puts an electric cock-ring on him so that whenever he answers one of your questions, he gets an electric shock. Now, in your book, you say that The Baroness “made [you] complicit in his torture” (page 56). But she must have gotten your consent to do this. How did she propose this setup to you? I mean, if it bothered you — if you felt complicit — then why did you agree?
DB: She did not forewarn me —
CT: She didn’t forewarn you? (laughs) Jesus Christ!
DB: (also laughs) — I felt complicit. But I also felt — I mean, here was a highly educated, self-possessed man who was fully consenting. I was intrigued by what she’d done, but I don’t remember being deeply troubled by the fact that my voice was now activating that machine. I mean, he was on an erotic journey that was very profound for him and he was more than willing to share his thoughts with me. We were all three of us in consenting roles — my role was to learn.
CT: You also say that after the interview was over, The Baroness set the voltage to random — so that this guy would be getting random electric shocks — and left him tied down, alone, overnight. Are you aware that that’s very unsafe? People die from being tied up and left alone.
DB: I was unaware that people can die from those activities. But if you’re asking me whether I witnessed things that might be considered unsafe, then the answer is yes. I guess you’re headed towards the conversational territory of “Safe, Sane, Consensual”.
CT: Kind of. At one point in the book, you say, “The SM community had its own hallowed standards, its own principles. ‘Safe, sane and consensual’ were hallowed words. Neither The Baroness nor [her friend] Master R. had much use for them. ‘Safe is limiting,’ Master R. said.” (page 68) So my question for you is: have you heard the acronym RACK?
CT: RACK stands for Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. Members of the BDSM community proposed it years ago as an alternative for SSC, that is, Safe Sane Consensual. The idea behind the RACK acronym is that, yes, safety can be limiting. Proponents of RACK argue that the most important thing is that our BDSM is consensual — and that when we give consent, we are fully aware of the risks we are taking.
So, the point I’m making here is that — although your book seems to imply that The Baroness and Master R. are the only people going outside the bounds of physical safety — there are some people in the BDSM community putting a lot of thought into how we want to deal with these issues. Whether we want to define safety as a necessary component of our practices. Whether the bottom line is safety — or consent. Did you encounter any larger community discussions along those lines while you were researching your book?
DB: Not enough. If there’s a really vibrant discussion about this, about going over the line of safety — then I missed something. I wish I’d been more educated on that.
CT: It’s worth noting that the RACK acronym actually started as a joke, but I think it struck a chord — a lot of people in the BDSM community have picked it up and identify strongly with it. It’s also worth noting that the NCSF officially advises people not to follow RACK. If someone says that they are “risk-aware” but does the risky activity anyway — that can mean that if the worst happens, if one partner is injured or killed, liability is raised from accidental to willful negligence. In the case of a death, that can mean upping the charge from manslaughter to second-degree murder. Following SSC is far better legally, especially for kinksters who practice very risky edge play.
Back to The Baroness. Part of your book — the section with The Baroness, in fact — talks about female sexuality, and how women’s sex drives are too often held to a standard like that of men. How female sexuality is put in this limited box that may not quite work. For instance, here are some questions you pose: “What if, for women, physical readiness for sex [e.g. vaginal wetness] is distinct from the lust for it? What if there is another legitimate system of desire?” (page 77)
But you also talk about how The Baroness is a “true sadist” because she orgasms from inflicting pain. Do you think that by doing that, you’re just reinforcing this weird and arguably inapplicable standard for female sexuality? If women can feel lust distinct from physical response, then is it valid for you to claim that female sadists are rare, just because it’s rare for female sadists to experience orgasm while inflicting pain?
DB: That’s a good question, and a question like related questions that I will spend an entire book thinking about next. I think in a book like The Other Side of Desire, where stories about characters are so central, I was hesitant to stop for long periods to investigate an intellectual issue like that one — but it’s a completely valid question, and we should be thinking in depth about how we see female sexuality and how we define kink and not-kink within female sexuality.
CT: When you talk about The Baroness and how she came into kink, you say this: “About ‘safe, sane, consensual,’ she made it plain from the start that she didn’t observe rules.” (page 84)
The concern for me, when I read that description — and the others I’ve been talking about — is that I feel like you’re making The Baroness into a kind of “sexy outlaw”. You also imply that she’s more “real” or “true” than other female sadists. I think The Baroness sounds like a vibrant and interesting woman, and — if we assume that she is always getting informed consent — the way she practices BDSM is fine by me. But I’m bothered by the way I feel these conceptions are framed in your book. Sometimes, immature or inexperienced BDSM players will pressure others for not being “hardcore enough”, and I feel like I see potential for that judgment here.
So, the question is: do you have any thoughts on that and how it could affect people who read this book? Especially people with BDSM desires who haven’t yet experienced the community for themselves?
DB: One of the things that intrigued me about The Baroness was that she was interested in a genuine experience. I couldn’t say that “here’s the real” and “here’s the unreal”, though. Real and unreal, as you imply, may be a pretty cheap distinction.
CT: You have a lot of interviews in this book with scientists who are studying sexuality, or with psychiatrists who are attempting to deal with alternative sexuality. But I think that one thing your book does highlight successfully is the fact that our models of mental health and healthy sexuality are very influenced by the culture we find ourselves in. That is, even people who are trying to think outside the box about what sex is and what it means — these people can’t help being influenced by the conceptions of sex that already exist in our culture. Maybe the scientists who think about sex all the time are still no more open-minded than most people in our culture. I felt like you made this point very well — do you agree?
DB: I wouldn’t want to condemn those scientists as not open-minded, but I agree that we as human beings are completely influenced by the culture. Thinking outside it is extremely difficult, maybe impossible. That said, there are some scientists who really push hard against those influences.
Is it ever possible to completely divorce ourselves from our culture? I don’t see how.
CT: But given that you brought up all these great points about cultural relativism — I felt frustrated by the fact that you didn’t really highlight sexual advocacy. That is, you didn’t especially talk about the cultural activists who are trying really hard to change the way America thinks about alternative sexuality. For instance, the National Coalition of Sexual Freedom has a campaign going that’s intended to try and convince mental health professionals that BDSM people are not mentally ill. But you didn’t cover that campaign at all in your book. In fact, you didn’t mention the NCSF at all.
DB: That’s something that interests me. I’ve read and talked about the issue of BDSM and the mental health field a lot. However — this is going to be a frustrating answer, I know, but in the book it became a storytelling decision. I grew up as a reader of short novels, short works of nonfiction, and there’s this aesthetic desire to keep the reader moving forward. I wanted the reader to feel immersed in these personal narratives even if it came at the expense of a full political knowledge.
CT: But you did take scientific digressions. And one friend of mine who does BDSM advocacy felt that structuring your book in this way privileged mental health perspectives above advocate perspectives, and therefore privileged the prevailing cultural perspective over the changing one.
DB: I think that’s possibly a good point. If — and this is a big if — you assume that mental health professionals represent a prevailing cultural perspective, then I guess that’s true. I’m not so sure, though. That implies that mental health professionals aren’t capable of thinking outside the box, and I think that sells them a little bit short.
CT: I thought your book was eloquent — and it asked some wise questions — but I just saw this big hole where you could have talked so much about alternative sexuality communities. You touched briefly on how people in alternative sexuality communities can support each other — for instance, in the section about the amputee devotee, you mention that he drew validation from meeting and talking to other devotees. But you didn’t really talk about how alternative sexuality communities regulate ourselves, how we teach each other, what we’re doing to advocate — the workshops that we have, the way we welcome people into our communities and help them adjust to their sexual needs. I guess you didn’t think that it was relevant to your book, but to me it feels like a huge absence.
DB: It certainly is, in fact, absent. It may well be a mistake that it’s absent. This isn’t something I’ve thought about. Maybe there should have been some of that.
I think a very high priority for me was creating a sense that there was no boundary between these characters and the everyday reader. I knew that was going to be a difficult task. And I know that there are going to be people, despite the mainstream reviews, who say, “Ugh, I don’t want to go there.”
So one of my concerns was making that membrane between the characters I was writing about and the reader as thin and permeable as possible. Maybe there was some sense that if I leave these characters as individuals, that membrane will be porous and the reader will come inside. If I talk about communities, maybe there would have been more sense of exclusion for the reader. On the other hand, maybe that’s just a hindsight justification. Maybe I made a mistake and should have included more of the community.
CT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
DB: I get the sense that there’s a danger here that people are going to comment and form opinions about the book without reading it. It’s a short book. Read the book — at least respond to it emotionally — and then we can continue this talk. I just would appreciate it if the talk were built on the stories themselves.
CT: I think it’s a very eloquent book. I don’t mean to come across as saying that it’s a terrible book … I love the fact that you are using your eloquence to frame important questions rather than push an agenda. I love that you focus on people in this book, rather than theory. I love that you are creating a greater national discussion about alternative sexuality. But as someone who advocates for these issues and thinks about them all the time, I can’t help criticizing it this way.
DB: Well, I think these are great questions slash suggestions about terrain that I didn’t cover.
Thanks to filmmaker Brett Hanover for various kinds of inspiration and assistance, especially recording.
Check out Daniel Bergner’s website for his biography, news about his upcoming appearances, and more.