Before ‘Spanner’: A Sociologist Struggles to Make Sense of ‘Sadomasochism’ in the 1970s

Before ‘Spanner’:

A Sociologist Struggles to Make Sense of ‘Sadomasochism’ in the 1970s

Ken Plummer

Remembering Operation Spanner: Culture, Law, History and Crime Conference
10-11th September 2015



In this talk I will return, rather disturbingly, to research conducted in another time (the 1970’s) and place – as part of a project called, rather pompously, “Symbolic Interactionism and Sexual Differentiation: An Empirical Investigation”. The main aim of this study was to apply sociological/symbolic interactionist insights to a wide array of sexualities that had hitherto been the domain of psychologists and clinicians; and one of these fields moved under the category of ‘sadomasochism’. This study was pre-computers, pre-AIDS, pre-Clause 28, pre Thatcher, pre ‘Video-Nasties’, pre-Body studies, pre-Butler, pre- globalization, pre-postmodernism and largely even pre-Foucault: and, apart from a few quotes used in my Telling Sexual Stories (1995), it was never published. (Another world then!)


I will review some ‘findings’; indicate the ‘sensitising concepts’ and theories that I found useful; and raise some of the analytic and practical problems the research generated. I will briefly conclude with an update: looking at some of the more recent research and speculating just a little on how all this might link -or not link- both to the Spanner decision, and to some of my more recent work on Intimate Citizenship (2003) and Cosmopolitan Sexualities (2015).


Summary of talk


  1. Prologue: Time, Generational Standpoints and Generational Sexualities
  2. Contexts and Early Days (1965-90)/Building New Research Areas (1975-79)
  3. Conceptualisations for SM: Symbols, Scripts and Social Worlds
  4. Paradox and Ambivalence: Grounded Ideas of SM
  5. Back to the Future/Moving On: Challenges for Kink.
  6. Prologue: Time, Generational Standpoints and Generational Sexualities


Generational sexualities as synchronic or diachronic, simultaneous or development.

Sketching cohorts (see Plummer, 2010; 2015b.)


An ‘origins’ story in the making, still to be told:

Around 2015: Global, inclusive, digital, cosmopolitan generations?

Around 1990: Queer, postmodern, narrative and rights generations? SPANNER?

Around 1965: Liberation, law reforming, constructionist and AIDS generations?

Around 1940: ‘Modern sex researchers’: Kinsey to ‘Sexology’ generations?

Around 1915: Clinical sex analysis and early Freudian generations?

Around 1880: The Pioneering Sex Researchers?

Implications for a ‘Generational History of Kink/SM’? (see Kathy Sisson in Langdridge and Barker, 2013: p 19-33)
1970’s-1980’s? Early communities? 1900-1970? ‘Early networking’;1886: Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis; 1887: Alfred Binet, Fetishism in Love; De Sade; 1782: Rousseau Confessions etc.





  1. Contexts and Early Days (1965-90)/Building New Research Areas (1975-79)


Cultural (films, music, youth cultures). A cultural example – a simple listing of films, for example, would have to include (many of which caused a sensation): Belle du Jour (1967 (Bunuel), The Servant (1963, (Losey)), Last Tango in Paris (Bertulocci, 1973), In the Realm of the Senses (1976, Oshima), The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Fassbinder, 1972- and his other films ), The Night Porter (Lilia Cavana, 1974), Salo, 120 Days of Sodom (Passolini, 1975), The Damned (Visconti, 1969), Performance (1970, Nicolas Roeg), Ken Russell’s The Devils…etc. And this is not to list films that were controversial about rape and sexual violence like Straw Dogs and Cruising. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was made in 1986, and was a turning point for me.

And clinical (Stoller; DSM); legal, political: “Scenes”.


Academically: Main interest – gay; but in mod 70’s, started a broadening out. Very alone, I worked with the theory of Symbolic Interactionism. This has four major foci: it highlights symbols (what is the meaning here?), emergence (what are the process here?), reactions and others (how do people respond and interact?) and ‘intimate familiarity with the grounded empirical world’ (the injunction to get close to the data). It is grounded is a number of traditions including the pragmatism of James, Dewey and Mead, the formalism of Georg Simmel, the field work traditions of the early Chicago Sociology tradition and the humanism of Herbert Blumer. Politically it has some affinity with anarchism and a critical sociology (On all this, see Plummer, 1982,1989, 1990, 2000; also: Blumer, 1969; Denzin, 1992: Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies.)


On generations, see: Ken Plummer: ‘Generational Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions, and the Hauntings of the Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks. Symbolic Interaction. (2010a) Vol 33. N0 2 p163-191;
‘Afterword: Liberating Generations: Continuities And Change in The Radical Queer Western Era’ in David Paternotte and Manon Tremblay, eds (2015b) Ashgate Companion to Lesbian and Gay Activism.   Ashgate



  1. Symbols, Scripts and Social Worlds: Sensitising Concepts for SM in the 1970s


The theory of SI gave me a number of critical ideas with which to orientate our studies. Thus in this emerging 1970 view, sadomasochism starts to be seen:


  1. As Socially Constructed (Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann: The Social Construction of Reality, 1966) The critique of essentialism and the clinical model. The sm example asks how sexualities come to be assembled and what are the multiple social uses of sex?
  2. As Symbolic (Hebert Blumer: Symbolic Interaction, 1969). A great variety of emergent semiotic sexual meanings to be understood. Sm exemplifies different symbolic worlds.
  3. As Multiple and Pluralistic (William James: A Pluralistic Universe,1908). A plurality of sexualities – multiple ‘sadomasochisms.’
  4. Ambiguous and ambivalent: sexual meaning unclear and contested.
  5. As Labeling and Societal Reaction – categories as problematics to be investigated and the role they play in social life (Howard S Becker Outsiders, 1963- labeling theory. See Plummer, 2010). This also includes the ideas around ‘putative moral panics’ (Stan Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 1971). (and closely allied to this:- as Boundaries and Marginality – a social form which speaks to ‘evil’, ‘dirt’, ‘the normal’, borders, order and ultimately transgression/others (Genet, 1943,1949; Douglas, 1970; Scott, 1972; Davis, 1983- Smut)
  6. As Stigma – an experience transformed by stigma (Erving Goffman, Stigma, 1961)
  7. As Drama – a theatrical staging of sexuality (Goffman, 1957; Role Distance) – and as Script – performed through interactive not predefined scripts ( Gagnon and Simon, Sexual Conduct, 1973). Scripts are usually located on three levels: psychic (mental), interactive and cultural historical.
  8. As Negotiated Orders – always emergent, contested, reworked (Anselm Strauss: Psychiatric Ideologies and Institutions (1964) )
  9. As Selves and Identities – the flow of constructed selves, of I and Me, of identity crisis and of shifting modernities (George H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society, 1933; Erik Erickson, Identity, 1967): how did people acquire new sm selves & play with the categories?
  10. As careers – (Goffman, Asylums, 1961; Becker, Outsiders, 1963; Matza, Becoming Deviant, 1969; Lofland Deviance and Identity, 1969) – processes & stages of becoming and indeed ‘coming out’. Many stories and accounts ‘remember’ childhood events. Contingencies.
  11. As Practical Methodologists – how insider knowledge gives special insights on the workings of everyday life (Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, 1967: the case of Agnes, Kessler)
  12. As Subcultures, Social Worlds, and Social Movements – new worlds of sexuality in the making with new cultures (Shibutani; Hall et al (Resistance Through Ritual, 1976). Sexual entrepreneurs emerging with their own kink businesses.
  13. As Politics – politics as flow, symbolic, interactive and grounded in social movements.
  14. As Life Stories – (Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant, 1924..): the theme, in the end, that I explored most. The social conditions that allow for some kinds of stories to be told and not others.


My writings in this very early period included: Ken Plummer Sexual Stigma: An Interactionist Account, (1975) Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, l pp. 258; ‘Doing Life Histories’, (with A. Faraday) Sociological Review, Vol. 27, 773-92, November l979;“Symbolic Interactionism and Sexual Differentiation: An Empirical Investigation: Final Report for SSRC” Essex University, 1979. ; ‘Symbolic Interaction and Sexual Conduct: An Emergent Paradigm’ in M. Brake ed. Human Sexual Relations, 223-244, Penguin, Middlesex, l982; The Making of the Modern Homosexual, (1981) Hutchinson, London, pp. 280. “The Social Use of Sex” in June Hopkins. Perspectives on Sexual Violence (1984)Wiley:And ultimately to:Documents of Life: An Introduction to the problems and literature of a Humanistic Method, (1983) Allen & Unwin, London & Documents of Life-2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (2001);1991 Symbolic Interactionism: Volume 1 & 2 (1991) Edward Elgar, Aldershot; Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Intimacy and Social Worlds (1995) pp 244. Routledge: London.


Ambivalence: Emerging ‘Grounded’ Ideas of SM in the 1970s


Using the then emerging idea of Glaser and Strauss (The Discovery of Grounded Theory, 1967), some key ideas that grounded in sm experience highlighted tensions that infuse SM and its understandings: everywhere I looked sm generated a worrying tension of ambivalence, ambiguity, contradiction, inscrutability, paradox, riddles. Nothing seemed clear to me at the time. Ambivalence may be the best most general term. ‘SM’ can be seen as revealing

  1. The ambiguity of terminology. In the 1970’s, I used the term ‘sm’ sadomasochism, and it covered a wide range of sexualities. This is the term that my interviewees responded to. I was never happy with it. But the literature is littered with neologisms that attempt to make sense of it. Right now, BDSM, ‘the sexual fringe, ‘polysexuality’, the erotic margins, Kink and ‘Pervy’ seem the most common.

2.The core paradoxes of “SM”. What was the very phenomenon I was trying to understand? Three key tensions – desire/pleasure (Fetish), power and pain – stood out. Each brings its own tensions.

  1. The ambivalences of ‘serious play’. By the 1970’s there was quite a lot of writing and research that sexualities in the modern world was moving from reproductive to through relational to recreational (Freedman & D’Emilio: Intimate Matters); an early article by Nelson Foote, in the wake of the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953, had indeed been called “ Sex as play”.
  2. The clarification of consent, choice and agreement. Whatever it was that I was studying, it had to be distinguished from coercive, violent, non-consensual sexualities. From the feminist debates of the time, from the people I interviewed, and from the emerging writings of practitioners in sm it was clear that the differentiation of this kind of sexualities from coercive non-consensual sex was becoming a priority.

5.The riskiness of risk: the Oxford English Dictionary defines risk as-“(Exposure to) the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance; a chance or situation involving such a possibility”.

  1. The agonism of politics. I was researching at a time when political debates about sm were becoming more widespread and public – notably in the lesbian sex wars but also in the leather scene. This was pre –AIDS, but soon the SM scene would become very controversial in debates about bath houses and the spreading of the virus and safe sex.

Sampling some reading of the 1970-80s:

Gebhard, P. (1969). Fetishism and sadomasochism. In J. H. Masserman (Ed.), Dynamics of deviant sexuality (pp. 71-80). New York: Grune & Stratton.

Greene, G., & Green, C. (1974). S-M: The last taboo. New York: Grove Press.

Kamel, G. W. (1980). Leathersex: Meaningful aspects of gay sadomasochism. Deviant Behavior, 1, 171-191.

Krafft-Ebing, R. V. (1965). Psychopathia sexualis (F. S. Klaff, Trans.). New York: Stein & Day. (Original work published 1886)

Lee, J. A. (1979). The social organization of sexual risk. Alternative lifestyles, 2, 69-100.

Mains, G. (1984) Urban aboriginals: A celebration of leather sexuality. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.

Linden, Robin Ruth et al (1982) Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis. California: Frog in the Wall

Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. Vance (Ed.) Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality. Routledge & K. Paul. (but see her edited collection Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader)

Samois (1979) What Color is Your Handkerchief? A Lesbian S?M Sexuality Reader. Boston: Alyson (And see also Coming to Power, 1982).

Stoller, Robert (1979) Sexual Excitement; (1985) Observations on the Erotic Imagination; (1991)Pain and passion: A psychoanalyst studies the world of S&M. New York: Plenum Press

Townsend, L. (1972). The leatherman’s handbook. New York: Olympia Press.

Weinberg, M. S., Williams, C. J., & Moser, C. (1984). The social constituents of sadomasochism. Social Problems, 31, 379-389.

Weinberg, T. S. (1987). Sadomasochism in the United States: A review of recent sociological literature. The Journal of Sex Research, 23, 50-69.


Sampling Some Political Ambivalences/Agonistics


  • It might have all begun with De Sade as a radical act; but the majority of everyday practitioners I interviewed in the 1970’s were not really interested in the politics of sm at all. Very few people I interviewed expressed any interest in politics.
  • Some offered liberal views with pleas for changing attitudes, arguments for tolerance, understanding and acceptance; for change. But rights were not mentioned a great deal. The ‘culture of rights’ was in its earlier days.
  • I was aware when I started the research of some early social movements in both the US and the UK and followed up on them a little. In the US, the core groupings were around the Eulenspiegel Society and the Janus Society. On the UK, I researched Fulfillment?
  • There was also the long standing evolving Radical Leather movement – which some have dated back to the 1930’s. By the 1970’s it was a full-blown cultural scene – partially documented. Were Leather folk transgressive of nature and culture? Was it a celebration of hyper-masculinity? There was an emerging argument about the extremes of masculinity and a new men’s movement too.
  • By 1976, the Radical Dykes Movement had become a key focus – Samois (1979), Coming to Power (1982); and their Radical Feminist critics (1982): an argument about power and gender/ pleasure and danger.
  • The spiritually transcendent SM movement was emerging. Now almost a minstream? Dossie Easton and Janet Hardin (2005) Radical Ecstasy: SM Journeys to Transcendence – and many others: Sacred Kink, Dossie Easton’s The Ethical Slut, Jack Rinella’s Philosophy in the Dungeon – and its bridge into polyamory
  • Queer as a response started in the late 1980’s: see Robin Bauer’s Queer BDSM Intimacies (2014).
  • SM as a critique of capitalism, Carette (in Theology and Sexuality) claims sm can bring about’ the fracturing of hegemonic capitalist sexuality’ 2005 p26. It is a challenging ‘Counterpleasure’ (MacKendrick 1999: p11).
  • But there are also counter-movements: it is part of a neo-liberal commodification, expressive of neo-liberal patriarchy and post colonial/slavery etc.


Updating the studies: a small sample
Robin Bauer (2014), Queer BDSM Intimacies: Critical Consent and Pushing Boundaries. Palgrave.

Andrea Beckman (2009) The Social Construction on Sexuality and Perversion: Deconstructing Perversion. Palgrave

Ummni Khan (2014) Vicarious Kinks. University of Toronto

Darren Langdridge & Meg Barker eds (207/2013) Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism, Palgrave

David M Ortmann & Richard A Sprott Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM and Communities (2012) Rowman

*Staci Newmahr (2011) Playing on the Edge. Indiana University Press

*Danielle Lindemann (2012) Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism and Control in the Dungeon. University of Chicago.

*Margot Weiss (2011) Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Pleasure. Duke

* These three ethnographies are (critically) reviewed by Camilla Paglia in ‘Scholars in Bondage’ Chronicle. May 20th 2013.

  1. Back to the Future/ Moving On: Some Challenges for Kink.
  2. Sexual Stories: Has ‘kink’ reached narrative take off and is it producing narrative empathy?
  3. Digital Sexualities and Digital Storytelling: How are new worlds of Kink Culture being created?
  4. Embodiment: How does ‘kink’ enable us to grasp sexual embodiment?
  5. Intimate Citizenship: Can there be a ‘Kink Citizenship’? Should there be?
  6. Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Is Kink circulating the world and can there be global dialogues about it?
  7. Inclusive Sexualities*: Kink surely embraces sexual and gender diversity; but does its very outsider role inevitably lead to exclusion?

Some more recent writings by Ken include Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination (2015a) Polity; ‘ A Manifesto for Critical Humanism in Sociology’ in Daniel Nehring: Sociology – a Text and Reader (2013b). Pearson; ‘My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interaction, Auto/ethnography and the Sick Body’ – in Bryan S. Turner ed Blackwell Handbook of the Body (2012); ‘Labelling Theory Revisited: Forty years on’ in Helge Peters & Michael Dellwing eds Langweiliges Verbrechen (Boring Crimes) (2011b) Weisbaden: VS Verlag p83-103; ‘The Social Reality of Sexual Rights’, in Peter Aggleton at al eds Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights. (2010b) Routledge. P45-55; ‘Outsiders, Deviants and Countercultures: Subterranean Tribes and Queer Imaginations’ in Gurminder Bhambra and Ipek Demir 1968 in Retrospect: Amnesia, Alterity. (2009)Palgrave; ‘The Flow of Boundaries : Gays, Queers and Intimate Citizenship’, in Christine Chinkin et al: Crime, Social Control and Human Rights: From moral panics to states of denial :Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen. Devon: Willan Publishing (2007);‘Queers, Bodies and Post-Modern Sexualities: A Note on Revisiting the “Sexual” in M. Kimmel The Sexual Self ( Essays in Honour of John Gagnon). Vanderbilt University Press ;’Rights Work: constructing lesbian, gay and sexual rights in late modern times’ Rights ed Lydia Morris. (Routledge: 2006: Ch 8 p152-167); Critical Humanism and Queer Theory: Living with the Tensions’’ for 3rd edition of Handbook of Qualitative Research edited by Norman K Denzin and Yvonne Lincoln     (Sage: 2005), London.;’Intimate Citizenship in an Unjust World’ in The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities edited by Mary Romero & Judith Howard (Blackwell, 2005 : Ch 4 p75-99); Intimate Citizenship (2003) University of Washington Press; ‘The Square of Intimate Citizenship’ Citizenship Studies, Vol 5, No 3, November 2001 p237-53.

A useful general site with a lengthy ‘academic’ bibliography on the “Science of BDSM” is

Note: *Inclusive sexualities are those that can embrace sexual and gender complexity and variety.

They humanize sexualities through an awareness minimally of the following:

  1. Cultural Sexualities: Appreciate the varieties of cultural sexual and gender differences and complexity, and the struggle between the local and the global.
  2. Contested Sexualities: Recognise the ubiquity of agonistic conflicts and look for peaceful resolutions.
  3. Dialogic Sexualities: Know yourself, recognize the other, identify power and move toward a common mutual horizon.
  4. Empathic Sexualities: Understand others – appreciate and dialogue with your sexual partners and their worlds.
  5. Caring Sexualities: Be kind -care for the sexual other as well as your self; and work to reduce violence.
  6. Just Sexualities: Seek justice- create free, fair and equal relations.
  7. Dignified Sexualities: Foster human rights and dignity – respect others, their dignity and their rights being aware of their fragility and vulnerability
  8. Flourishing Sexualities: Encourage lives to flourish – foster relational flourishing for all across gender and sexuality.
  9. Hopeful Sexualities: Be positive and work for better worlds for all – keep hopeful in sexual relations. Reduce harm? Peace not truth? Light not heavy?
  10. Pragmatic Sexualities: Stay Grounded and Be Practical – Keep at it; it’s not easy! (Plummer, 2015)



KP September 7th 2015




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