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Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism

Be cruel in your erotic play: snap on handcuffs, neck-collars, and chains, lock pins and clips on nipples, administer meticulous floggings; or, be a slave for a night and, with your master’s help, mimic the ancient ‘art of unbearable sensations’, tremble with the most exquisite agonies, savor the disintegration and humiliation of the self in the jouissance of exploded limits.

–James Miller The Passions of Michel Foucault p.237.

Sex in the imagination

The preceding representation of sadomasochism (here after S&M) was presented in James Miller’s fanciful and imaginative, perhaps journalistic, depiction of Michel Foucault’s interest in sadomasochistic gay sex in California in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It reflects the external economy of sex, its mechanics, and its fanciful decorations, which titillate the voyeur, but bore Foucault. David Halperin has forcibly argued that Miller’s representation of S&M made it doubtful whether Miller had been in a gay S&M club, particularly in the period of the early 1980s. Halperin continued his critiqued by suggesting Miller’s imagined portrayal of such events were “perhaps the most singularly unsexy dungeon scene ever written” (Halperin 1995:170,182). What Miller’s imaginative construction failed to register was the underlying politics of the exchange. Sex according to Foucault was a boring subject (Foucault1983: 340). Indeed, Foucault was not interested in sex as such, but with the technologies of the self in Western culture. He was interested in the historical conditions that produced the discourse of sexuality and the relations of power that S&M depicted. Sex is boring as a discourse because it covers up the relations of power and techniques of the self, which underpin and shape our sensual living. In many ways, as Kathleen Sands has indicated, sex has become over burdened as a liberating space (Sands 2001). She argues that we ask too much of sex, but what Sands does not make clear is that talk about sex, which proliferates on the edges of contemporary theology, needs to be placed within the wider material structures of society. Sex is exciting in theological discourse because of its order of representational power and its potentiality to subvert disembodied orthodoxies and conservative ideologies. In many ways, as seen in the history of surrealism, it is easy to play with the discourse of sex within Christianity, particularly in the domain of S&M. This play of tension – offering important cathartic release and theological critique of oppressive systems – can easily alienate and distract from the underlying economic questions of sex in an age of late capitalism (see Hennessy 2000). This essay will not only be a reflection on the bodily exchange of fluids, but the discursive exchange of theological representations of S&M, which inform our embodied lives and our lived material existence. My aim is to review critically the often sensational and confusing amalgamation of S&M and Christianity and locate these discussions within the context of late capitalistic societies. This task is important because the fantasies surrounding sex and Christianity often lose sight of the embodied economic systems they support and sustain. This essay will therefore try to establish a vital link between theology, the body and economics of our material existence inside the problematic of S&M.

Links between S&M and Christianity

There have been in recent years a number of texts which have delighted in the apparent links between the history of religious suffering, particularly in Christianity, and asceticism and the practices of contemporary S&M. Such writers as Anita Phillips have argued that while religious experiences and S&M have different outcomes they are both “aware of the importance of integrating pain and privation into experience rather than denying it. Both”, she goes on to say, “have found their own way of translating a concern with mortality or negativity into a useful set of keys for living” (Phillips 1998: 140). The pains and agonies of the ascetic life and the erotic liberation of sado-masochists are found to be constructive – an acknowledgement of the fatality and rapture of the human body. (Phillips 1998:140-142). The establishment of links between religious practices and eroticism have been rich resources in literature and art, from the surrealist films of Artaud to the avant-garde novels of Klossowski and Bataille. These subversive works have all been uncritically used to challenge the binary separation of pain, sexuality and religion. Indeed, the historical links between practices held under the modern term S&M and Christianity are now well documented by many writers from George Ryley Scott’s History of Corporal Punishment (1968) to Althaus-Ried’s Indecent Theology (2000). We even find extraordinary web-communities delighting in Christian BDSM (bondage, domination, sadomasochism), bizarrely sanctioning S&M through the biblical texts on submission (www.christian-bdsm.org), offering networks for discussion and communities for shared experience. The obvious links between the history of Christianity and S&M leave us, according to Mark Jordan – in his recent workThe Ethics of Sex (Blackwell, 2002) – with a number of possible conclusions; that either Christianity was distorted and needs correcting, or that power lies at the heart of all intimacies, or that God is at heart of all affliction. As Jordan states: “Pursing any of these alternatives, we will find ourselves learning that sexual sadomasochism lies close to many of our “purely religious” experiences than we might have supposed” (Jordan 2002:168). What Mark Jordan rightly recognises is that Christian theology can learn from the contemporary site of S&M practice, despite the fact that it challenges the comfortable worlds of traditional Christianity. But before we can appreciate this relationship, it is necessary to establish some critical evaluation in order to ground the discussion and avoid any problematic sensationalism. Using S&M to shock the theological world has value in attempting to respond to the pains of exclusion and the denial of embodied pleasure in the Christian community (the silent unconscious of theology that fuels S&M in the theological mind). However, as discourses of S&M become more prevalent in the theological world, it is time to move beyond the shock tactics to the careful analysis of the social order of the body politic, particularly if there is to be wider appreciation rather than alienated fear of such practices. “What is problematic”, as Judith Butler rightly recognised in an early piece of lesbian-feminist critical reflection, “is that sm takes a non-reflective attitude toward sexual desire” (Butler 1982: 172). Theology, therefore, needs to break down the sensationalist and politically naïve readings of S&M in order understand the political ideology behind its varied manifestations.

The Construction of S&M: Psychopathology, Sub-Cultural and Commercial

However titillating and strategically important the introductions of S&M into Christian discourse may be, we have to remember that S&M is a recent discourse developed from the writings of the Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his 1886Psychopathia Sexualis. S&M is a psychosexual discourse that operates in modern capitalistic societies as a transgressive sub-cultural form of resistance to hegemonic sexual practices – in so far as it identifies pleasure outside the procreative act. We must also be aware that contemporary S&M, including the wider BDSM, is a spectrum of engagements in a diverse set of contexts and cannot, like all aspects of ethical concern about sexual relationships, be placed in one hegemonic category. It covers the ‘voyeuristic aesthetic’ of art and pornography (in theology playing with the images of religious pain and suffering), it is a mild engagement with positions of domination and submission in a diverse set of relations, from married couples to the professional dominatrix, and it is also an intense psycho-physical encounter with painful pleasures and desires (both mild and extreme in nature), acts also carried out both within and outside traditional relationships. The context is as important in understanding the oppression and liberation of S&M as the acts themselves. My concern with the economic status, consensual politics and social construction of S&M relates to all these various expressions in slightly different ways, but all reflect the politics of late capitalism.

The striking feature of S&M is its curious “secret visibility”. It is described as the “velvet underground” and, outside the specific dynamics of individual couples who draw on the subculture, it operates within small private, social networks (particularly in its more concealed heterosexual manifestations), it is however also publicly manifest, most notably in its forms of political resistance in the gay leather scene – most cities have gay S&M bars and clubs, as Weinberg and Kamel note (Weinberg 1995). It is also important to recognise that you cannot read subcultures, as David Muggleton indicates, outside commerce and the media, to which we may also add fashion trends, the sex industry and now cyberspace (Muggleton 2000. See also Steele 1996). S&M is specifically a technology of modern living, which draws on a whole series of cultural resources. Brain McNair’s study of the media and pornography demonstrates there has been the development of “s/m chic” (a claim by made Judith Coburn in New Times in 1977). S&M here becomes a commercial strategy for selling amongst other things Tennent’s Larger and Pot Noodle (McNair 1996:154). To read S&M outside its psychosexual, subcultural and commercial context is to create an ahistorical fantasm. This means we need to be cautious about simplistic associations between S&M and Christian theology, this point is made clear in Karmen MacKendrick’s excellent study of S&M in literature and culture, entitled Counterpleasures. Here she states:

Despite my consistent conjunction [here] between asceticism and s/m, I think that we must be wary of the association made between the erotic and spiritual, which more often than not turns to a kind of New Age fluff (veering often, though by no means inevitably, toward the sanitised and pastoral). (MacKendrick 1999: 157).

What is important to note about this delineation of S&M within a late-modern context is to recognise that the discourses of pain, domination and submission and the history of religions are not restricted to popular discourses about S&M. This can be seen in Ariel Glucklich’s recent study Sacred Pain, which acknowledges the way pain has played an important part in religion and culture, but he divorces this from S&M. Glucklich, still caught in a psycho-physical model, develops a hypothesis based on a neuropsychological model of agency and the self to show how pain is a way of transcending the self and the emergence of a new self (Glucklich 2001: 207). He argues that pain in ritualised contexts throughout history leads to new states of consciousness and can be perceived as a good thing (Glucklich 2001: 88). The separation of the history of bodily pain from the discourse of S&M is crucially important at this point. Pain, the body and religious practices have a long history, but this is not the modern invention of S&M.

While it is not in question that at some level religious suffering and S&M may constitute a parallel event and hold a common denominator in the suffering body, there are huge epistemological quandaries in understanding the erotic experience of S&M as religious or theological. What is held in the space of S&M erotics is different but related to the history of Christianity, particularly as the context and belief behind a specific infliction of pain on the body is crucially important. The desire to die for Christ in the literature of martyrdom, or the bodily denial of the flesh in any form of religious asceticism, exists within a different order of experience (both socially, politically and historically) from, for example, the general practices of submission and domination in the heterosexual houses of British suburbia or the gay bathhouses of San Francisco.

While there is some political value in the subversive and sensual tactics of theologians and writers delighting in the connection between S&M and the history of Christianity, I find this connection both prosaic and at times a misplaced anachronism. There is important historiographical work to be carried out in this area, but it merely restates a central problematic about relations of pain, domination and submission in the space of theology, rather than reflecting an understanding of the specific aspects of S&M as a modern set of sexed relations in the contemporary capitalistic world.

I do not find the comparison between S&M and Christianity, in the arena of historical practices, psychopathology or studies of pain, as the major issue of concern. What seems more important – and the key issue at stake – is the material structures of sexual relations and ethics of exchange, which requires a new political economy of sex in relation to power and gender. Few writers have started to think critically about the relationship between the bodily pains and suffering in religious practices and S&M erotic pleasure from this perspective. One of the problems, as I have already indicated, is that there is an uncritical utilisation of the term S&M, which is a modern invention of just over a 100 years old, mutated through psychological history and capitalistic processes of commodification.

What is often forgotten, as Gary Taylor has indicated, is that S&M is not so much a mirroring of religious violations of the body but that it is rather socially constructed through religious discourses. Religious discourses of suffering permeate into contemporary eroticism. If we see S&M as a socially constructed discourse built up from the fragments of modern living then, as Taylor has argued, it is necessary to “investigate the way in which these discourses are used by people to define, shape and make sense of their sexualities and so explore the way in which SM sexualities are discursively and materially shaped” (Taylor 1997:121). Taylor touches upon the key question here, but never grasps the full force of the material structures of S&M and never relates this to Christian theology (which resides outside his remit). It is important then to recognise that the discussion of S&M and Christianity is a late modern discourse, related to but distinct from the history of Christian asceticism. Taylor’s work seems to imply that there are two necessary tasks to carry out in the engagement between of S&M and Christianity; first, we need to explore critically the images of Christian asceticism that are carried into S&M subcultures and attempt to understand why such images becomes useful for erotic play, which will include bringing some critical ethical insight from such traditions; second, we need to reverse the equation and ask what S&M subcultures in modern capitalistic societies can teach contemporary Christian theology about the importance of embodied pleasure and the material relations of our intense exchanges.

What I am seeking to draw out in this paper is the internal economy of S&M sex as a late modern exchange (and the word exchange here is important). I am here following Dennis Altman, in his attempt to map the political economy of sex, in its material and institutional formations – the social, political, economic structures through which sex occurs and which allows us to have the pleasures and orgasms we desire (or more terrifyingly are manufactured within us to desire). As Altman states: “We badly need a political economy of sexuality, one which recognises the interrelationship between political, economic, and cultural structures, and avoids the tendency to see sexuality as private and the political and economic as public” (Altman 2001:157). In order to respond to this position, I want to read S&M as a set of political power relations informing and related to, but distinct from, all sexual encounters (i.e. not just those dressed up in the capitalistic outfits of commodified leather and rubber – Miller’s fanciful decorations). I want to follow Foucault in recognising, in his reflections on S&M and gay culture, the need to reflect upon “a culture which invents ways of relating, types of existence, types of values, types of exchanges between individuals that are new and are neither the same as, nor superimposed on, existing cultural forms” (Foucault1982.a.:39). It is through these types of exchanges – which, according to Foucault, “desexualize” pleasure and developed the “eroticiation of power, the eroticization of strategic relations” – that we can rethink the structures of exchange in Christian theology (Foucault 1982.b.). In this sense it not the connections of meaning but the material structure of our sexual relations which are central (Foucault 1976: 114). It is, of course, important to realise, that Foucault’s somewhat uncritical and visionary hope in the early 1980s that gay leathersex could transform society was tragically reconfigured with the pan-epidemic of AIDS, but it is also important to recognise that the eroticised mind games of BDSM are celebrated precisely because of its safe, non-penetrative sexual practices. But it is the material structures of exchange in S&M sex that I believe have much to teach contemporary theology, not in terms of its obvious phenomenological parallels, but in terms of the economics of relationships and the dynamics of intimacy. Even in its sub-cultural commercialisation S&M can still be a site/sight of politic resistance and in this sense S&M can be both oppressive and liberating.

Theology is always an institutional practice of social exchange that orders the material economy of the body and offers in turn a space to ethically transform S&M practice as well as fuel its oppressions. Our understanding of God (the presence of love and justice) is always shaped by interpersonal exchanges in community, the body and the flow of capital – a configuration that makes S&M powerfully illuminating to theology. In this sense, I want to map the relationship between the internal economy of S&M onto the economy of the divine relations and map the economy of divine relations onto S&M. The reason for this is that I see the dangerous aspects of sex as capitalism (supported by certain forms of patriarchal theology). The challenge to this is the even more dangerous aspect of sex found in the economics of intensity and intimacy (the counterpoint of capitalistic sex), which are hidden in the economy of S&M exchange and ethically transformed by an embodied economy of the Godhead (that is the material conditions under which individuals meet and share their pleasures, desires and understanding of God). What theology needs, as Foucault argued for society as a whole, is a “different economy of bodies and pleasure” (Foucault [1976] 1978: 159). While Foucault often used the idea of “economy” in a metaphorical sense his thinking takes on renewed force within the conditions of late capitalism.

Ethical Tensions in S&M Literature

The literature on S&M holds a fundamental tension about the place of S&M within the sexual economy of exchange and the underlying ideology of exploitation. It is critiqued on the one side for its abusive models of power and collusion with a culture of violence (see Linden et al 1982) and on the other it is defended as a cultural parody, liberating intensity and offering fundamentally consensual sets of relations, even finding expression in its “New Age fluff” as “spiritual” (see Califia 1979; [1993] 1998; [1994] 2000; Thompson 1991; Hart & Dale 1997). In my view, S&M can be both a form of oppression and liberation; and here I want to refuse the either/or mentality of Christian binary epistemology and to recognise that in complex worlds we can at times both simultaneously abuse and liberate in the same action and that actions can be viewed differently in specific contexts. We are in this sense tainted with the frailty of the human condition, the history of our traditions and the spectre of capitalism, that even the attempt to think outside such positions becomes a move that supports it. (It is precisely this moment of recognition that means I can never completely ignore the conditions of my thinking in Western Christianity and my Quaker identity of non-violence in reading these questions, although neither of these positions negates the possibility of a positive reading of S&M as such). This is not to say ethical solutions are not possible, but that we are tainted with the blood of our own liberating revolution. If we recognise that S&M is both a liberating and oppressive form of exchange then we may ask what these two sides of S&M offer to Christian theology in terms of its own economics of pleasure. S&M is a cultural site from which theology can learn about the politics of pleasure and exercises of power (Bersani 1995: 83). If we want to understand our culture we need to look at the practices of the body and as Nietzsche indicated read those questions of spirit in terms of the body (Carrette 2000: 109-128). The world of theology has much to learn from S&M as the world of S&M has much to learn from a critical theological politics that reflects on patriarchal sexual abuse and the ethical importance of non-violent forms of relating. In order to illuminate some of these tensions, I will explore a few aspects of the dynamics of oppression and liberation in S&M in terms of the economics of intense exchange inside contemporary theology. I offer this economic register in order to cut across and widen existing debates about the ethics of S&M.

1. Oppressive Structural Relations in S&M Sex

In the, now classic, 1969 article “Fetishism and Sadomasochism” by the anthropologist Paul Gebhard, there is an important recognition that S&M occurs within a cultural context. He argues that S&M is embedded in our culture because the culture “operates on the basis of dominance-submission relationships”. He rightly notes how this has been framed by gendered relations, but never achieves the critical insight of Gamman and Mackinen, who recognise the S&M dimension of advertising and its effects on female anorexia (Gamman & Mackinen 1994; Weinberg 1995:42). What emerges from these studies is that S&M reflects the structural realities of Western society. This structural analysis of sexual relations is echoed by Altman, who provocatively notes that: “Sexuality” – and the shift here to the idea of sexuality is important – “is a useful domain in which to test the alleged dominance of the American.” He recalls, at this point, Robert Kaplan’s description of a poster on a bus in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, which depicted the “promise of the West” with a nude American pinup. This image and, what Bruce Rich calls, the “global brothel of Bangkok” reveal how “sexuality” is a sign of the production of modernity and global capitalism (Altman 2001: 10, 32, 91). S&M functions within this space, as both a site of resistance and compliance with global capitalism. It is not an insignificant fact that S&M subcultures take images form WW2 Germany and flourish in the market economy of the USA. S&M eroticses the power relations of the Western world and seeks to find liberation from those embodied agonies, as reflected in the torture chambers of the commercial dominatrix who frees and indulges the elite business fraternity from their positions of embodied structural power. As Geoff Mains delightfully remarks: “Leather can relieve stress” (quoted in Bersani 1995: 84).

S&M, as Leo Bersani has indicated, is to some extent “profoundly conservative” in so far that its “imagination of pleasure is almost entirely defined by the dominant culture” (Bersani 1995: 87). It holds conventional understandings of masculinity, mirrors master-slave relationships and “argues for the continuity between political structures of oppression and the body’s erotic economy” (Bersani 1995: 90). S&M is ironically as conservative as aspects of the Christian church, in so far as it maintains the power structures of hegemonic patriarchal sexuality – even if they wear different uniforms! It is for this reason that Christian BDSM groups can so easily form themselves in the USA. The relations of domination and submission are written throughout the Christian tradition and it is this that attracts the S&M community to the images of Christian history.

Mark Jordan is correct in his suggestion that one of the options in considering the relationship between S&M and Christianity is to recognise that “power lies at the heart of all Christian intimacies” (Jordan 2002:168). This is seen more vividly in his earlier workThe Silence of Sodom (Chicago 2000) where he refers to “ecclesiastical bondage” (Jordan 2000: 213). Referring to the Catholic tradition he says: “The theological virtues are no longer faith, hope and charity, but submission, submission, submission.” (Jordan 2000: 213). In such a climate Jordan believes it is not surprising that the clergy are attracted to S&M and that “priestly cassocks or monastic robes figure so prominently in some S&M rituals” (Jordan 2000: 218). While acknowledging the obvious “excessive” and oppressive nature of submissions in the church, especially for the gay community, what we need to do is ethically evaluate the nature of “submissions” and “authority”. The discipline of submission does have an important value in the Christian tradition, a fact noted by Anita Phillips and now explored in a recent collection of essays by Sarah Coakley (Coakley 2002).

What is never touched upon in these reflections is that submission is also an economic category. Coakley missed a great opportunity to overcome the dualistic ontology of Christianity by rejecting the discourses of submission in sexual bondage as offering insight into her theological project (Coakley 2002: xii). Such attempts to dislocate the politics of “submission” from its sexual and embodied formations only hide the reality of (economic) exchange in Christian theology. We can see this from Altman’s understanding of the global exchange of sex and his consideration of women in the sex trade of Thailand, here sex is seen, as he quotes Lenore Manderson, as a “means of production rather than a mirror of the self” – that is commercial sex versus its identity spaces of white Western lifestyle (Altman 2001:104). In the heterosexual households of Western capitalism the pleasures of the body take on a different socio-economic structure and shift from a means of production to a culture of consumption, so that alongside visits to the IKEA furniture stores gay and straight couples can have orgasms – “with or without fries” – and order their pleasures around models of consumption and desire. Christianity supports such docility by continuing to hold onto models of household economics (inherited from the Greco-Roman period) in its theological constructions. So that its narratives of exchange in the Godhead, by the economic theologians such as Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, are still operating on models of household trinitarian relations from the social and economic structures of late antiquity. However, in a post-industrial world where the theological spaces have shifted from the nuclear family to unmarried couples, single-parent families, people living apart from their households and work driven occupancy, such models of theological exchange are outdated. These new economies of lifestyle result in new forms of psychosexual exchange and this leaves theology divorced from the body and the contemporary analysis of this exchange, particularly in it understanding of the sexed-body. So in effect, what we have, is a model of theology based on a nostalgia for productive sex (maintained in the global sex trade) rather than models of pleasure based on non-productive intensity vis-à-vis certain forms of S&M or BDSM. This is precisely why studies in contemporary theology, such as Stephen Long’sDivine Economy, become a form of nostalgia for a theological worldview out of touch with the embodied realities of global capitalism (Long 2000). The undermining of social scientific methods to support contemporary theological reflection on the present economic realities is to separate theology from its ever-changing material conditions. However, we should also be aware that S&M gets caught in productive exchange and mirrors the violations of the body still prevalent in global capitalism. These tensions require us now to consider how S&M can also be a site/sight of resistance as well as oppression.

2. Liberating Pleasures: S&M as Political and Theological Transformation

In her insightful work Counterpleasures, Karmen MacKendrick recognises how S&M pleasures have the potential to destabilise and threaten not only “the existing political and cultural orders but all manner of orders”, including, she notes, the sacred and profane(MacKendrick 1999: 6). The reason for this is that pleasure is “not inherently productive” and “has the power, in its polymorphous mutliplications, to disrupt a society based on production and consumption (MacKendrick 1999: 3). Her work follows Bataille, Nietzsche and Foucault in thinking through the literary and cultural understanding of sadism and masochism, asceticism and sub/dom relations. The book takes it political and economic inspiration from an extraordinary little work by Raoul Vaneigem – his political manifesto The Book of Pleasures , written in 1979. Vaneigem’s manifesto, echoing in my view both the tones of revolutionary French surrealism and Whilem Reich’s leftwing analysis of orgasmic pleasure as revolution, builds sexed-leftist-anarchy by arguing that indulgence in pleasures will overcome the machine of the work economy and the class struggle. He argues that “intense pleasure means the end of exchange in all its forms” (Vaneigem [1979]1983: 28). It is here that I reject Vaneigem’s economic analysis, because it dangerously turns into a form of solipsistic fascism in believing self-indulgence in pleasures will change society for the better. Vaneigem argues that “exchange paralyses the living” and later “exchange putrifies whatever it touches” (Vaneigem [1979]1983: 30, 90). However, Mackendrick’s reliance on Vaneigem means she fails to show how S&M is a particular form of “intense exchange”. MacKenderick is wrong to build her otherwise effective analysis of S&M on such naïve models of exchange as simply capitalistic and dangerous. Vaneigem’s book is not specifically about S&M and Mackenderick would have been more effective if her work recognised a model of contractual exchange which S&M establishes. Exchange, as Gregory Alles has shown, is a far more complex category and one that grounds the basis of all human society, the question is not getting rid of exchange but of finding more effective and enriching forms of exchange in society and theology and in all our bodily pleasures (Alles 2000).

Mackenderick also believes Vaneigm’s work to be “interestingly close to Foucault”, but such an equation, while right in the broad sense of linking pleasure to the wider socio-economic processes, fails to register Foucault’s concern with lifestyle, which is far more complex than Veneigem’s isolated – perhaps one could say, consequentially, masturbatory – society of pleasure. Foucault on the other hand recognised that what non-gays fear about homosexual relations is not the bodily acts they may get up to but the consequent issues of lifestyle, the techniques of the self and the communities established from such relations of pleasure, the subsequent social exchanges that would result from such pleasure (Foucault1982:301). As Leo Bersani, echoing Foucault’s words to the non-gay world, stated: “what you are really afraid of is the threat to your privileges in the gay escape from relationships you created in order to protect your power” (Bersani 1995: 82). Sexual pleasures result in different forms of social exchange and to change the economy of pleasure is to challenge the socio-economic structure. The body and its practices are key organising boundaries for a society and it therefore matters how our bodies are materially and economically ordered (see Albanese 1999: 2-6). We can now understand the enormous amount of fear Christianity has about pleasures outside the economy of non-productive sex, because non-productive pleasure challenges the power relations of the religious hierarchies and their – often hidden – values of capitalistic theology. We must also recognise that the idea of “non-productive” does not mean S&M is of no economic consequence or that it “produces” no interpersonal value, but rather that the modes of engagement challenge the “production” of capitalism by establishing new social contracts (even though such contracts are tainted within capitalistic society and perhaps even a product of such a society).

It is this side of S&M which is celebrated in its practices and in its literature. For S&M requires something which commercial-theological productive sex does not require, that is a pleasure generated through an exchange of deep trust and intense intimacy – formative of communities. This is where sex gets dangerous, not in its glossy commodification but in its personal imaginative pains and enacted fantasy, with all the messiness of human suffering and our multiple polymorphous desiring selves. The irreconcilable struggles between pleasures and social status are here brought into focus by the S&M community. It becomes a site of resistance because it seeks to reconfigure pleasure in its intensity of exchange rather than through its productive or commercial value. Gayle Rubin’s account of the famous Catacombs, an S&M club in San Francisco, shows the levels of “attention, intimacy and trust” which result from extreme S&M pleasures (Rubin 1991:103). This is where theology has much to learn from a model of non-productive pleasure in intense exchange, for it demands not only the body, but fantasy, heart and passion. The dynamic of intensity here is central, as Foucault makes clear: “What interests the practitioners of S&M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open…This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty which the simple consummation of the act lacks” (Foucault1982.c.: 299). S&M is therefore an exchange at the fragile limits of the bodily sensation and the fantasms written across it by society and its institutions. It is here where there is a giving up of self to pleasure – Foucault’s “new economy of bodies and pleasure” (Foucault [1976] 1978: 159).

If Foucault is correct to see pleasures as forming new social relationships then intense exchanges in the Christian community can begin to change the morphology of Christian living. This is a shift from Christianity as capitalistic bourgeoisie communities perpetuating the productive pleasures of the traditional family unit to a community of intense exchanges, which demand honouring the disappearance of a coherent self in the spaces of rapture. In such a world belief will be the enactment of faith between vulnerable bodies and a demolition of the isolating politics of capitalistic exchange. The correlation between pleasures and social management is crucial at this point. As Foucault argues: “We live in a relational world that institutions have considerably impoverished. Society and the institutions which frame it have limited the possibility of relationships because a rich relational world would be very complex to manage” (Foucault 1982.a.: 38. Emphasis added). It is the unmanageability of S&M exchanges that threatens orthodox theological systems, which find pleasure in the desire to control pleasure or the “excess” that would challenge the ecclesiastical regulation of the body.

MacKenderick, however, is correct to realise that this paradoxical point of Christian theology returns us to the bodily practices held in Christian asceticism and brings about new understandings of divinity. “[I]t draws”, MacKendrick argues, “the divine back into the body and transports the body in the intensity of its pain to the divine” (MacKendrick 1999: 86). What becomes, as she says, “unquestionably powerful” in such a move is the way such subversion is found in the very “conformity to religious demands” of the past Christian tradition. The difference, of course, in contemporary S&M is that pleasure is now validated through the act of privation (MacKendrick 1999: 86), which is an important representational shift, valorising the pleasures outside models of deprivation and sexuality.

Idolatry and Critical Consensuality

The oppressive and liberating aspects of S&M, as examined through questions of the material economy of our intense exchanges, enable us to see how important it is to develop a critical framework for our physical expressions. It requires us to recognise the complexity of intense exchange and understand the value and danger of such engagements. This critical awareness raises a further question of how theology can transform S&M. At the heart of physical rapture, through either the dominant or the submissive position, we have to face the problem of “idolatry” (and here I am grateful to Hugh Pyper and Benedikte Uttenthal for bringing this question to my mind). This can be seen most clearly in the work of Jungian psychologist Rosemary Gordon, who suggests in her clinical papers that “masochism” might be the shadow side of “worship and surrender to a deity” (Gordon 1993: 274). She suggests that “sacrifice, self-sacrifice and expressions of humility are part of veneration and worship of God, the Spirit”. She goes on to say that if this need becomes “isolated” from God or spirit it becomes an end in itself and thus we may argue a commodification of bodies and selves. What Gordon is suggesting is that the death of God – which Foucault saw, following Bataille, as making the body the new space of religious experience – brings about a loss of theological order for the act of submission. Submission without a purpose or symbolism other than its own pleasure simply becomes a form of reasserting the psycho-sexual self, which sustains capitalism (see Carrette & King 2005: 54-86). But if S&M pleasures are located in the intense exchange between persons and the non-empirical realities, what William James called the “unseen presence”, then the intensity of pleasure becomes a revelation of God (James [1902] 2002: 46-65). In the loss of self in submission to the other, or in the responsible act of dominance, we find a ritual of exchange where bodily intensity and limits become pathways to intimate expressions of love.

This loving intensity is a gift of the exchange between the created order and its creator, between life and its refusal to produce and its free will to celebrate the intensities of being alive. The divine presence in acts of erotic exchange transforms them into mysterious encounters with our God-given power and our submission to God’s loving power. God brings an ethic of value to games of submission and domination, which, as we saw in the anthropology of Gebhard, shapes the contours of our everyday life. There are levels of being dominant and submissive in life from childhood to old age where trust and love hold our vulnerability. We assume different roles in giving and receiving, directing and following and holding and being held. These positions of power and powerlessness in the fabric of our everyday life and work shape (and at times mirror) the intimate spaces of our sexual world and reflect the passionate drives and vulnerabilities of such connections in all their confused, angry and joyous forms. If these forms of relation are taken to levels of physical pain then we need always to interrogate the “consensual politics” of such acts not only through the freedom of choice, but as Linden shows, through the social and historical conditions that determine our consent (Linden 1982: 7). Our consent in late capitalist society is manufactured and, while the ‘violations’ may well be therapeutic and personally liberating in such a world, we also need to ask whether they are given by God (the presence of love and justice) as Christ was given to the torturous pains of crucifixion out of love for the world. The politics of consensuality moves us through questions of the freedom of choice, the care of limits and the economics of our intense exchanges. It is only through these critical concerns that we can begin to make sense of the intensity of our embodied living in late capitalistic society.

Conclusion: The Politics of Intensity and Intimacy

The key contribution of S&M, as Foucault made clear, was the “desexualisation of pleasure”. Contemporary Christianity is caught in a model of human relations determined by its structures of “sexuality”, with models of desire rather than pleasure and intensity. Indeed, Foucault has shown how the discourse of sexuality emerged from the history of Christianity, which is why they are so compatible (see Carrette 2004). “Sexuality-desire” marks out identity into marketable objects (identities and transactions of consumption), it is the endless and unfulfilling pursuit of the impossible to produce and sustain uninterrupted capital. While “pleasure-intensity” offers an exchange in terms of gifts across identity politics and non-sexual pleasures. “Pleasure-intensity” opens the realm of transgressive intensities, where the ‘pleasurable’ pulling of hair, restrictions by bondage and acts of playful submission bring about the fracturing of hegemonic capitalistic sexuality by opening the possibility of loving pleasure without the abuse of power (even though such exchanges are always open to the spectre of capital and abuse). Each of these acts requires us to be “critically consensual” in order to explore the material relations of our intensity and the ethics of our painful pleasures.

The challenge brought by the contemporary S&M scene to Christian theology is to create new forms of pleasure outside the modes of production found in the discourses of sexuality. In conclusion, what I want to suggest is that intensity and intimacy are seen as political categories of a new theological exchange, not some romantic sharing or commercial product, but a new basis for Christian living in intense communities. Intensity demands intimacy, it demands self-disclosure, demands integration of mind, body and heart. Intimacy is intense because its demands the embodied reality of oneself in terms of fantasy enacted and a freedom in a pleasured exchange of the heart. There is an emotional openness to the physical truths of the other, not fearful closure or objectification of the other for one’s own pleasures. In such “critically contractual” exchange a space is created for bodies and pleasure before God (the presence of love and justice). Here humanity finds God in the delights of shattering the oppressive discourse of sexuality and discovering a vision of love (mutual affirmative exchange) in intense exchange. The Christian community needs to find a wider set of options in theology than the household economies of capitalism, recognising also that such households hide non-consensual sexual violence. Capitalism alienates the individual from pleasured relationships as a means of producing the unrealisable desire. It exploits the unlimited space of desire by constantly creating more desire. Pleasure on the other hand is fulfilment, present and non-productive, it is the bringing of God into the world of pleasured life – an exchange in the erotic economy of God’s justice and salvation. What is potentially dangerous about S&M (bondage and domination) is precisely its intense exchange. Intense exchanges are dangerous to capitalism but not necessarily to a theology of loving power and humble reverence. The voyeurism of porn, the drunken one night stand, the mutual jerking off in the dark corners of some public space, the dead marriage, the nameless body ‘fucked but not kissed’ and the controlled performance of the brothel all maintain the loneliness of capitalistic desire – not so much Deleuze and Gattuari’s “bodies without organs” as “desire without intensity and intimacy”, the dislocated desire of late capitalistic exchange. If theology can move from an economy of production and desire to an economy of pleasure then is has the potential to make pleasure our salvation. This is not to underestimate the dangers of misplaced idolatry, false consensuality and the abuses of our pleasures, but to recognise that the material reality of our pleasures are structurally determined by society and its material relations. It is also to realise that our pleasures are all we have to free ourselves from the modes of alienation so prevalent in our world. Christian communities have for so long read sexual exchange as the surplus commodities of transcendence, to be claimed in another world, it is now time to realise the redemption of our pleasures in this world and free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation.


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Intense Exchange first appeared in Theology and Sexuality, Vol. 11, No. 2, 11-30 (2005). Sage remains the rightholder to Intense Exchange and has given The Other Journal permission for non-exclusive world rights in electronic media in the English language only. Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications Ltd with the copyright belonging to Sage Publications Ltd 1995.

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Jeremy R. Carrette :
Jeremy Carrette is the Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies in the School of European Culture and Languages at the University of Kent.