Elisabeth Wagner


Symposium Lecture:

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Dr. Elisabeth Wagner studies sadomasochism as a sociologist and a practitioner. Her doctoral thesis ‘’Boundary aware sadomasochism. SM sexuality between norm breaking and norm affirming’’ was published in 2014. In this study, she explored the subject of societal regulation and standardization of sexuality.
She lives in Frankfurt/Main, Germany and works as a scientific associate for the Senior Citizen Education Program at Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universitaet.
She leads seminars about current questions in sexology, sexual diversity and sexual change.




Strategies for (self)normalization in sadomasochism as a potential critique of gender norms

Sexual liberation, as we have experienced in the west for the past twenty years, in the sense of increasing acceptance of sexual practices such as sadomasochism, has without question benefitted people. Today, sadomasochism is seen as part of the mainstream and as freely practicable. On the other hand, a dogged potential for scandal or at least attention generation remains when sadomasochistic practices are discussed publicly. We are dealing with two mechanisms simultaneously: the promise of liberalness and the subtle persistent threat of pathologization or marginalization.

How do those who self-identify as Sadomasochists/SM/BDSM perceive these contradicting mechanisms?

What role does knowledge about sadomasochism play in the interaction with SM?

Through interviews with SM practitioners, it has become apparent that they go to significant lengths to position themselves near the norm. I have analyzed this ‘‘work’’ that SM practitioners perform within the framework of their identity and their interactions with outsiders. I have uncovered the implicit knowledge that SM practitioners refer to. In doing so, it has become apparent that this ‘’work on boundaries’’ is necessary on the one hand in order to safely interact with SM, to define boundaries, and to be accepted as trustworthy within the scene. However, it also became clear that the constant comparison with a supposed norm lead to the normative restriction of personal freedom: the act of self-normalization.

Using interactions with erotic power play, it could be shown that (not only heterosexual) women and men feel compelled to legitimize their power needs differently. They grapple with defending their gender identity, with cementing it. These strategies for legitimization can be reversed and used productively by becoming aware of them, by for example asking, what knowledge am I referring to when I explain, that I, ‘’am normally rather dominant in everyday life’’. I would like to discuss with SM practitioners and those interested in SM if and how SM can use this reversal to win back its critical potential.



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