Professor and author Mary Ann Davis brings kink to Yellow Springs

Photo: Professor and writer Mary Ann Davis in the classroom

By Ashley Moor

If you’re anything like me, the media has influenced some part of your life and view on the world. Leave it to any crime show to show you parts of the world—ugly and benign—that shift your view of the serene world you live in. I remember watching an old episode of CSI and trying to hide my 13-year-old fascination as a rather kinky scene was taking place. This was my first glimpse into the world of BDSM and kink, and it involved murder. If you pay close attention, the media has tried again and again to make us feel ashamed for our sexual fetishes. The prime example of this unfair representation of sex in the media is the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise—not only does it have a habit of making the common man squirm, it also makes kink and BDSM scholars like Mary Ann Davis shake their head.

As a teacher and writer, Davis has explored the world of kink and BDSM and come back with a real life interpretation of this world (and it doesn’t involve murder). Davis is a professor at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, where she gets to explore topics like sexuality and erotic power. Currently, as a part of Davis’ critical scholarship, she is studying literary, cultural, and theoretical engagements with erotic power. I caught up with Davis to chat with her about some of the kink and BDSM philosophies that stray far from the violent, and delve more into the way we interact with our partners, friends, and community.

I first wanted to ask: why this life? Why do you feel like it’s important to talk about sex and everything that goes into it? 

Mary Ann Davis: Well, I think it’s important to talk about sex because sex is everywhere, and it’s something that we assume everyone practices and enjoys—and I think that both of those things are not necessarily true, right? So I feel like there are a lot of assumptions surrounding sex that don’t often get addressed and that’s one of the major reasons why it’s important to talk about it. I also like to research and read about sex because I enjoy doing that, right? It’s one of my scholarly passions. And I think that there are so many ways that people could have more sex that they find pleasurable. I want to break down the shame around sex, a lot of which is breaking down the assumptions around sex. If people are having sex, I want them to enjoy it. And if they’re not enjoying it, I want them to think about why they’re not enjoying it.

So when you’re talking with someone who may not be as open-minded about sex, do you find that they just aren’t aware? Like, they just don’t have knowledge of kinks and of things like that? Or is it just because they are afraid to talk about it? 

MD: I think it’s probably all of those things. I think that in our culture, there’s a lot of shame around sex, right? Combined with a simultaneous pressure to be sexual and to talk about sex and to be totally into and be comfortable with it. And I find that to be a competing pressure. I think a lot about the college students that I deal with, entering the college and coming into a very expected hookup culture, right? Where everyone is going to be having sex and everyone must enjoy it, and that’s like a thing. But, that sex positive doesn’t necessarily address, you know, sort of cultural shame around sex. Which comes from religion or from medicine or from law. It comes from a lot of different social spheres, right?

Also, I saw that you are in the middle of writing a book? What is your book about? Can you give me just a summary? 

MD: So, it’s called “Between the Monstrous and the Mundane.” My aim with this project is to think about erotic power in a way that does not assume that it involves extreme sexual practices. I’m a lot more focused on thinking how erotic power relies on everyday and mundane realities. So the first part of my book is reading across all of these different theories—from the 19th and early 20th century sexologists, psychology, anthropology, and combining all of these theories also with the street theory written by kink and BDSM practitioners in columns or in manuals because there is a lot of self-theorizing that practitioners of sadomasochism do, right? They do a lot of thinking about what they do, so I’m weaving all of these together to sort of create a new story about how erotic power relies a lot on the everyday and the mundane.

Do you have an example of a mundane kink? 

MD: One way that I think about kink and BDSM as being mundane is how it operates and eroticizes social forms. So, if you were to think about a relationship between, let’s say, a mistress and a slave, in a kink community, a lot of the erotic turns upon things that we might consider sort of mundane or boring. For example, proper ways to address your mistress, right? So, the right words to use. Proper ways to carry your body as a slave, different codes for how to serve tea, very mundane ways to hold your body properly.

What’s your take on the more violent representations in the media of kink and BDSM? 

MD: It’s inaccurate. For people who are outside of kink communities, and don’t really understand all of the care and negotiation that goes into what looks like violence or looks like trauma, they don’t realize that it is actually not those things at all. It comes from a place of not knowing how to read what looks like violence, and not being able to see it as a simulation of those things. It comes from seeing the sort of drama of BDSM scenes first, and not sort of seeing the extraneous, mundane parts. Like, the negotiation and the care that comes after, but just focusing on the drama of that scene. And I think it’s the drama that sells, right? There are some TV shows that have tried to engage in more complicated ways with BDSM communities, but it almost becomes like a public service announcement.

What are some myths that you’ve come across in rhetoric about BDSM and kink? What are some myths that you want to squash, for people who may not know otherwise? 

MD: The major one: All masochists or submissives or bottoms are abused as children. That’s just flat out untrue. There is some alignment between experiencing an abuse or trauma of all kinds and being interested in exploring BDSM because BDSM has a cathartic effect on a lot of people. It’s a sort of release, right? It goes beyond the typical release of orgasm. But just because there is that link, doesn’t mean that all people who desire to experience pain or to submit or to be disciplined—that doesn’t mean they’re all coming from an abusive past by any means.

Mary Ann Davis’ recommended reading for the kinky and curious:

Two essays that will change your perspective on sex and the erotic:

Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978, printed in Sister Outsider, Ten Speed Press)

Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984, reprinted in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, Duke University Press)

Both are a product of their times, in that they tend to essentialize the gender binary and misrepresent transgender folks—yet both propose world-shifting ideas around the erotic and sex.

Some handbooks to help begin an exploration of BDSM, kink, leather, and/or polyamorous communities:

Mollena Williams and Lee Harrington’s “Playing Well With Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating the Kink, Leather and BDSM Communities” (Greenery Press, 2010). Two non-centric voices in the BDSM community come together in one of the only handbooks to get into the culture of BDSM/kink communities. The authors also offer an excellent resources section that will point folks to more hard skills books about BDSM practices. Mollena Williams’ blog is also one of the best on the Web, especially on service, race, and taboo play (www.Mollena.com).

The updated classics by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton: “The New Topping Book” (Greenery Press, 2003); “The New Bottoming Book” (Greenery Press, 2001); and “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures” (Celestial Arts, 2009, second edition). These are classic handbooks not to be missed. The titles say everything.

Contemporary works of fiction instead of “Fifty Shades”:

Anne Rice’s Beauty quartet. Published under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure, the first three books were released in the late 1990s, and the final in the quartet was released in 2015. Much better writing than “Fifty Shades,” Anne Rice’s Beauty books are deeply entrenched in a fantasy world, but not that of the Harlequin-romance kind. If you like Anne Rice’s style of writing erotica, you can also check out “Exit to Eden, which is very different from the film of the same name (1985, written under another pen name, Anne Rampling).

Fiction by Laura Antoniou, especially The Marketplace series (Circlet Press, 2010). This series offers a loving, critical, humorous, and hot depiction of an elite BDSM circle involving a… marketplace. Plays with normative concepts of gender, sex, and tenderness in a way “Fifty Shades” never can.

Feminista Jones’ “Push the Button” (2014). One of the only novels to depict people of color in BDSM relationships, this book pushes against the stereotype that kink is only for rich, white people.

Melanie Abrams’ “Playing” (Grove Press, 2008). Erotic power is central to the mood and character development of this novel, but not necessarily to the plot, which is likely why most reviewers classify “Playing” as a literary novel. It also engages—in complicated, if stereotypical, ways—the psychology of folks interested in sexual relationships that centralize an erotic power dynamic.

Your first resource for all things related to sexual freedom, advocacy, and education in the U.S.:

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, www.NCSFreedom.org/

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