Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tropes and Scripts

 One of the most distinctive features of kink is the erotic use of specific tropes, scripts, or fetishes. Some of these tropes have been so closely associated with BDSM that they are used as a primary reference point: for instance, “the leather community”, “leather/Levi bars”, “fetish clubs”. However, there are no specific tropes that are universal to kink (Moser and Levitt 1987). This creates definitional-boundary problems for research on kink tropes, since the choice of tropes is likely to define the scope of the population (Ridinger 2002).

Since Baumeister's work on BDSM pornography (1988b), though, there have been several empirical effort to categorize scripts and tropes of kinky behavior, and break it down by gender or sexual orientation. Although pornographic content is clearly related to the scripts of kink enacted in real life, it presents difficulties in terms of research. In particular, the gender and orientation of a pornographic author are often unknown. Baumeister assumed rather optimistically that they could be deduced from the content and style of the pornographic work. A local study casts doubt on this, and there have been high-profile cases where people have gotten it wrong: notably Brownmiller's (1990) insistence that The Story of O had been written by a man.

Nevertheless, Baumeister was able to suggest that heterosexual submissive kink narratives were neither homogenous nor random. Instead, they clustered around specific archetypes that each used common themes, scripts, and tropes. He identified three clusters (I am paraphrasing):
Female masochist cluster - Fantasize being in a committed, ongoing relationship, where they are treated as sexually desirable adult women, or in some cases, sexually desirable pets. In this context, they are forced to submit to pain, penetration (anal, vaginal, and oral), verbal humiliation, display humiliation, and/or urine play. The pain-play is “endowed with meaning” via narratives of punishment, etc. 
Male masochist cluster - Similar to the description above, but differs in several regards. There is less emphasis on the relationship and on the “endowed meaning” of pain and humiliation play. Pain and humiliation scripts tend to be more extreme, though display humiliation is less common. The humiliation play may involve the suggestion that the man is not sexually desirable. Performing oral sex is emphasized. In some cases, the fantasy may involve cuckolding or infantilization, which are absent in the cluster above. 
Male forced-feminization cluster - Quite distinct from the previous two clusters. This fantasy is focused on being transformed into a woman, and very strongly emphasizes humiliation, usually emphasizing the man as sexually undesirable and a failure of masculinity. Pain-play, anal and oral penetration, cuckolding, etc. might be part of this fantasy, but they are contextualized by the “feminine” status of the participant.

Subsequent research has elaborated substantially on these observations. A series of Finnish studies on BDSM club members (Alison et al 2001; Nordling et al 2006) have suggested that different scripts exist for kinky gays and lesbians, with cluster analysis suggesting four different groupings for gay men, termed “hypermasculinity; administration and receiving of pain; physical restriction and psychological humiliation.” Similar observations have been made by Dancer, Kleinplatz, and Moser (2006) and Plante (2006).

Lee (1979) had argued in advance of this research that many of the sexual scripts of the Levi/Leather bars he was studying served a safety function. For instance, costumes and public sexuality created strong and highly visible in-group identification, which allowed for community oversight. Sexual scripts that included staggered locations and delayed scenes created opportunities for reluctant partners to leave. Lee suggested that such scripts were adaptive for the community.

Finally, Bienvenu (1998) has shown that there are developments in these tropes which, at least over long time horizons, can amount to major shifts of practice. These changes appear to disseminate largely through fetish pornography, though they may not originate there. There is considerable informal support for this claim. For instance, many elements of today's kink scripts involve technologies or practices that were invented (or at least popularized) in recent history. Meanwhile, commonplace elements of Victorian kink (such as birching with twig bundles, or even the prominence of fur) seem to have largely disappeared.

The constantly changing nature of these tropes probably limits the usefulness of research that aims at creating definitive taxonomies of kinky behaviors. At the same time, it seems important to our understanding of kink to note that: (1) scripts do tend to cluster around a certain archetypes (2) these patterns can change over time, (3) there can be multiple clusters even within one demographic group, such as submissive gay males in Finland, and (4) the scripts may serve an adaptive function within the community.

Updated 2/1/13


  1. "Meanwhile, commonplace elements of Victorian kink (such as birching with twig bundles, or even the prominence of fur) seem to have largely disappeared."

    It doesn't seem to me that these elements are based on dissemination through porn, but more to do with the relative availability of such items - birch twig bundles were not that unusual in rural Victorian England, for example, whereas nowadays it isn't that easy to find suitable materials. And of course furs have developed a different social significance in recent decades due to animal rights issues and the like.

    Indicative of this type of trend is perhaps the still popular status of the rattan cane, which in England was legally used in schools until 1980, and many in the kink community here today had direct experience of that as their first inkling of sexual arousal through pain. It is also the most visible and culturally-recalled tool, whereas the birch has somewhat faded in the memory of the wider society as well. Might porn not in fact have reflected rather than given rise to, the trends suggested?

  2. Sorry, I should clarify what I mean by "disseminate". Bienvenu does not claim that these scripts _originate_ in pornography. There are some authors who would say that, but I don't find the argument very compelling. The question here is how the scripts travel around, not where they come from.

    To use your example, rattan canes are a fairly common trope in American BDSM, despite the fact that there is almost no cultural history here of using canes for corporal punishment. How does a kinky young woman growing up in Illinois decide that a rattan cane is sexy, when there are no rattan canes in her surrounding culture? Pornography seems a very likely vector.