BDSM, dress, and consumption: Women’s meaning construction through embodiment, bodies in motion, sensations, and formal and informal economies

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Guglielmi, Juliana
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Reddy-Best, Kelly L
Sanders, Eulanda
Marcketti, Sara B
Arendt, Susan W
Schaal, Michele
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Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management
Subculture refers to smaller groups within society who interact based on their shared commonalities, such as hobbies, religion, education, occupation, lifestyle, or beliefs (Hebdige, 1979; Lennon et al., 2017; Muggleton, 2000; Zambelli, 2017). Bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadism, and masochism (BDSM) is a subcultural identity, which refers to a group of people who participate in consensual activities including unconventional, erotic sexual practices and behaviors (Bezreh et al., 2012; Rehor, 2015; Simula & Sumerau, 2017; Stiles & Clark, 2011; Zambelli, 2017). Fetish/kink is sometimes used interchangeably with BDSM, while other times people place BDSM as a subcategory under fetish/kink. Individuals within subcultural communities, including BDSM, represent a deviance to hegemonic cultural expectations as they consciously create visible constructions of their identity through dress (Hebdige, 1979). The fetish/kink subcultural members navigate their dress practices through different materials, colors, and costumes, which fall into the categories of constriction, character, and effectuation (Lunning, 2013). Women within the expansive kink community express their identities through dress in these ways to achieve agency and empowerment in their bodies (Geczy & Karaminas, 2013; O’Donnell, 1999), though some also experience stigma due to the community practices (Montemurro & Gillen, 2013; Rehor, 2015; Simula & Sumerau, 2017; Zambelli, 2017). Though there is some academic literature on fetish/kink dress practices there is almost no research on BDSM specific dress and how the women within the community navigate their BDSM identities through dress and the related consumption practices. The purpose of this study was to critically examine BDSM women’s dress and consumption practices. To date, few studies have highlighted the lived experiences of women participating in the BDSM subculture and how they navigate their identities through dress. Through this study, I provided an opportunity for BDSM women to write their own narrative. I will shed light on women that have traditionally been under-recognized and/or experienced stigma because of their subcultural participation (Bezreh et al., 2012; Frank, 2015; Stiles & Clark, 2011). To answer the research questions and achieve my purpose, I conducted 19 depth semi structured wardrobe interviews. I utilize the abbreviated approach to grounded theory (Charmaz, 2000; Willig, 2013), in addition to a social constructivist paradigm assumption as I recognize that meanings are negotiated through social interactions with others (Creswell, 2013). BDSM practices cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the social and cultural circumstances that surround them (Simula & Sumerau, 2017). Scholars using a social constructivist perspective approach research with the assumption that there can be multiple realities and interpretations of any event (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). I drew upon numerous theories and concepts including symbolic interactionism (Goffman, 1959; Kaiser, et al., 1995; Solomon, 1983) intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991), and space (Massey, 2005), which informed data collection and analysis processes. By utilizing these theoretical ideas, I intend to illuminate the meanings the women understand and construct about their BDSM identity through dress in addition to examining the intersections of other possible marginalized identities they hold. The interview schedule was built from existing literature on BDSM subculture (Steele, 1996; Winge, 2013) symbolic interaction (Goffman, 1959; Kaiser et al., 1995; Solomon, 1983), and intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991) to ensure cohesion between research question and data collection. I offer implications towards developing further understanding of the experiences and needs of these women in addition to offering marketing and design implications to the 30-billion-dollar sex tech industry which includes BDSM products (Yaroshenko, 2018). I identified eight major themes related to BDSM women’s dress practices: aesthetics, sensations, and fleshy bodies in motion; revealing and concealing; empowered, fulfilled, and recognized; stigma, gender hierarchies, and educational labor; formal and informal commodity channels; consumption practicality; consumption barriers; and demise of the emotional and the physical. Participants used various dress aesthetics and objects eliciting heightened sensory experiences to negotiate BDSM identities on the fleshy body. These were used to communicate kink preferences; maintain power or control over others; facilitate assuming a role in a scene; satisfy partner preferences; feel a positive sense of self; increase physical pleasure while in role; communicate lifestyle interests; and to feel a sense of community and connection. Participants often related that they engaged in a continual process of revealing and concealing their BDSM identities through dress in addition to their historically marginalized identities. The responses included actively hiding their BDSM identity in public, being open about their BDSM identity in public, revealing their historically marginalized identity within BDSM spaces, and concealing their historically marginalized identities in BDSM spaces. Some participants expressed overall positive emotional experiences when negotiating their BDSM identity through dress including: feeling general positive attitude toward oneself, feeling a sense of agency, freedom, and empowerment, fulfilling a fantasy and having positive experiences due to their privileges (e.g., white, thin, upper class, attractive). Some participants expressed negative emotional experiences from individuals outside of the community related to general stigma, which sometimes led to educational labor exhaustion. Within the community, participants discussed experiencing stigma due to body size, engaging in certain types of BDSM for example, age play and engaging in stereotypical gender hierarchies. Prioritizing gender hierarchies within the community also created negative emotional experiences for participants. When asked about how they consume BDSM dress, participants expressed a variety of ways they obtain pieces for their wardrobe. While some participants purchased new items via online, and brick and mortar retail locations they also obtained new items through purchasing from vendors at kinkster events, finding out about artisans or brands through word-of-mouth and creating custom pieces that are made to order. Other participants consumed BDSM dress through second-hand retail locations including Goodwill, Salvation Army and other thrift stores as well as through informal economies. When items, whether new or second hand, did not meet the participants’ aesthetic needs, they expressed the importance of bricolage; this entails DIY-ing items once they were purchased. One of the major concerns in consuming BDSM dress was the challenge to find reasonably priced and good quality BDSM gear. Some participants discussed their experiences in consuming BDSM dress through a custom made-to-order system with private artisans and/or Etsy vendors. Other participants consumed their BDSM dress through second-hand purchasing, via the informal economy, or handing down and sharing within the BDSM community. For some participants, shopping for new garments, second-hand garments, and bricolage-ing existing garments was not an option because of body-size limitations. In their purchases, participants sought after garments, objects, and accessories that assisted them in desired aesthetic and sensation enhancement. They also had numerous practical motivations such as physical comfort. Fat women participants often struggled with finding BDSM dress that provided the comfort and mobility they needed and desired. Other practical purchase motivations mentioned by participants included production factors such as quality, affordability, and accessibility. Some participants mentioned their negative experiences with quality of their BDSM dress in the past, and said they now look for a certain quality level while shopping. Hygiene was also considered as use of the various objects were close to the fleshy body and involved frequently bodily fluid exchange at times. When asked about their purchasing experiences, participants reported varied emotional responses. Women often shared negative emotions such as anger and stress due to: lack of options for plus size bodies; financial barriers; difficulty in finding modest BDSM appropriate options; internet censorship, and lack of options in the United States. Not all participants were able to afford the high quality, and even custom quality price points. Participants mostly had positive emotional responses such as feeling satisfied or not distressed when shopping because they were in a higher socio-economic status and were able to commission expensive custom pieces from independent artisans or obtained items via Etsy sellers. Participants also experienced stress during shopping because of a lack of available modest BDSM appropriate options for various scene. Another barrier to participation was the lack of products made in the United States. Participants shared multiple ways that BDSM dress was discarded throughout the garment’s life cycle. They mentioned discarding BDSM dress because items were disposable and meant to be destroyed, discarding items because they only wear them with specific partners, they get rid of items because of emotional connection to past partner, and discarded because of wear and tear. The women participated in BDSM because they were navigating past traumas, seeking a sense of community, exploring their sense of self, and seeking feelings of liberation. The participants navigated numerous identities simultaneously including their marginalized identities. Participants took control of their bodies throughout the processes of negotiating their BDSM identities; they were sometimes hesitant to disclose their participation, but exposure to the BDSM community helped them to feel empowered. The women used dress as a transformative experience where they often embodied another character to act out the varied tensions surrounding their identities. Throughout all of these processes’ participants moved in and out of BDSM-specific spaces and their everyday lives and were continually revealing and concealing BDSM participation in varied ways due to stigma. This sigma has resulted in a lack of objects available in the capitalist marketplace, which led participants to engage in informal economies and to commission custom pieces in order to have their needs satisfied. The lack of available products within the capitalist marketplace also led many participants to engage with bricolage or DIY techniques to create their desired aesthetic and meet their needs. The BDSM women in this research were prompted and allowed space to write their own narrative about their lived experiences with dress, identity, BDSM, their bodies, their partner dynamics, and consumption. The women expressed agency in negotiation of dress, as well as their interactions with others while the body was both in motion and still, what I term as embodiment-dress-movement-sensation. That is, interactions were of great importance to constructing meaning, yet these interactions centered on and cannot be interpreted outside the notion of the two bodies moving away or towards one another and the other sensory experiences they discussed such as taste, smell, and touch. It was in that physical and metaphorical movement where meaning was created between the partners, the dress objects, and the physical fleshy body.