This piece is written by Spring 2013 intern Natalie, around her thoughts about beginning thesis research on the BDSM and Leather communities. To read more work by current and former interns, check out the Intern Corner section.
As a second-semester college senior, time is winding down and the pressure is picking up. Next week, I begin the two straight months of research and writing that will be devoted to my senior thesis in Feminist and Gender Studies.
The trouble with my thesis is not that I haven’t started yet, or that I’m stressed out about writing it: the trouble is talking to anyone outside of my department about the topic. I am writing my thesis on BDSM and leather culture, likely looking at social hierarchies that exist in this subculture, or at these communities being spaces of resistance. This is a valid topic, and I don’t need to justify it to myself–but I hesitate to answer every time someone asks me what I’m writing my thesis on. A series of assessments begin before I even open my mouth: are they going to judge me? Does this person even know what BDSM is? And if they don’t, I’ll have to explain. And when I do, will this person laugh at me or make fun of me? Will they make assumptions about my sex life?
At a very liberal liberal arts school, I don’t have to be as cautious as I might in the real world. But even so, I made the mistake of opening up to a lab partner a couple of months ago because he seemed genuinely interested, and spent the rest of the homework session enduring jokes about whips and chains at my expense.
The truth is, every time this happens, I am more sure than ever of my choice. A society hostile to deviant sexual expression has driven participants in BDSM acts and relationships to effectively go underground. BDSM practitioners face many of the same issues as other sexual minorities, a realization that to me has been reinforced over and over as I endure an “outing” process every time I talk about my thesis topic.
Given all of this, I was nervous when I applied for a research grant at my school to spend time at the Leather Museum and Archives in Chicago. In fact, I spent most of the proposal justifying why I was even studying this culture, rather than talking about the actual research I will be doing, simply because I was concerned about the review committee’s initial response to a proposal titled “Performative and Actual Inequality in BDSM Culture.” But the more I consider the social stigmas, the more I am motivated to study the histories of leather culture and to be a part of a declaration, reclamation, and creation of an identity. ‘